Picasa's facial recognition tool: Cool and scary

As part of a redesign of its Picasa Web Albums online photo sharing site, Google added a new facial recognition feature that quickly sifts through groups of online photos and categorizes them by person. Google says the tool lets users more easily identify and tag people in photos for faster, easier organization and recall. Others say the tool, while cool, has many implications, some of them pretty scary. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

To use the tool, users simply upload photos into Picasa Web Album and click on the name tags feature. Using its cloud-based computing infrastructure, Google quickly scans all the photos, groups similar faces together, and presents them to users in groups. Users can then choose to add a name tag to the faces, and that tag is distributed across all the pictures in the group.

Google is right. The new tool does make it far easier to tag and organize photos (as anyone who has spent time labeling dozens of pictures after a recent vacation can attest). But it also adds to the huge amount of private information Google is privy to--not only does Google know your Web surfing (Chrome), e-mail (Gmail), and document-sharing (Apps) habits, as well as whether or not you've had time to mow your lawn (Google Earth), but now they know you and your friends' faces and names. It's pretty cool and pretty scary.

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