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This new app can identify total strangers and Facebook isn’t happy





Perhaps you were pleased to hear that Facebook will no longer allow police and intelligence agencies to randomly root around in its databases. But you may soon be able to do much the same thing on your iPhone.

That’s the idea behind a new app called Facezam that’s due to launch next week. The brainchild of British entrepreneur Jack Kenyon, Facezam issupposed to let you identify strangers by taking a picture of their faces with your smartphone, and then automatically match them against their Facebook profiles.

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I haven’t tried Facezam; here’s hoping it doesn’t work. But I wouldn’t count on it. Similar but less aggressive face recognition apps are already out there. And face recognition is commonplace in many desktop programs and Internet services, including Facebook itself.

In a pre-emptive strike, Facebook has warned that the app violates its terms of service, which suggests the company will block its use. Still, the existence of Facezam shows how little privacy we have left. Facebook and other Internet giants know nearly all there is to know about billions of us, and now much of that data can be accessed through any smartphone. And our only remaining defense is the good intentions of Facebook chieftain Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow online titans. That’s not good enough, but for now it’s the best we’ve got.

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Much of the information we give Facebook is available to all comers; it’s a social network, after all. You can look up information about one person at a time, or write software that plugs into Facebook and scoops up the data of thousands. That’s why companies love to advertise on Facebook; they know exactly who they’re talking to.

The police also like Facebook. They can hire companies that track postings by suspected criminals or political activists, or follow message threads on controversial topics like the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s non-stop surveillance, without wasted shoe leather, or a warrant.

But the police spies are being frozen out. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California reported that at least 20 of that state’s police departments were engaged in social media spying, without notice to the public or permission from elected officials. In response, Facebook and Twitter stopped providing data to one of the biggest tracking services used by authorities, Chicago-based Geofeedia. And on Monday, Facebook said it would no longer allow anyone to collect its data for use in surveillance.

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That doesn’t seem to faze Kenyon. To his mind, he’s just bringing a touch of democracy to the spy game.

“This technology already exists,” he told me on Tuesday in an e-mail from London. “Most people don’t realise that the State (military, police etc.) already uses tools similar to these. So we’re just making this available to the public.”

Facezam was inspired in part by Shazam, the popular phone app that can identify a song just from hearing a bit of the melody. Ever see a good-looking man or woman strolling down Boylston Street, and wonder how you could get in touch? Just run Facezam, and get a clear photo of the person’s face. The program will compare the image to millions of Facebook profile photos. Kenyon claims the whole thing takes about 10 seconds, and has an accuracy rate of 70 percent.

If it works, you can instantly learn the identity of a total stranger. And perhaps a lot more—marital status, address, place of work, hobbies, favorite foods—all the stuff that 1.8 billion of us habitually reveal to Facebook.

What might happen if any iPhone user could have such power? “The privacy implications can already be felt,” Kenyon said, “and they have both negative and positive impact. The obvious ones would be reduction in crime, as well as a loss of privacy.”

I’m not clear on why Kenyon believes Facezam will lower the crime rate; I’d expect a surge in stalking and sexual harassment cases. We’re on the same page about privacy. Indeed, he told the British newspaper the Telegraph, “Facezam could be the end of our anonymous societies…privacy will no longer exist in public society.”

Yet Kenyon seems to delight in the prospect. He’s racing to get Facezam onto our phones, and he shrugged off Facebook’s warning. “Facebook hasn’t spoken to us directly,” he said, “so at this moment in time we can’t see anything stopping our launch on March 21st.”

Sounds like wishful thinking. Facebook will surely find a way to stop Facezam. But social networks and search services and advertising companies will keep hoarding our data, and using it as they see fit. And while some will try to behave responsibly, we can never trust them all. My distaste for new federal regulations is nearly Trumpian, but I make an exception for privacy. There ought to be a law.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.


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