This Sex Offender-Spotting App Sounds Like a Really Bad Idea

Video via Youtube/FacialNetwork

There’s been a fair bit of discussion in the past week about an app for Google Glass that uses facial recognition to stalk “connect with” people around you. What few people seem to have pointed out so far is that this seems like a really bad idea.

A company called FacialNetwork.com has released the NameTag app for Glass Beta testers, and is apparently planning a smartphone version in the future. According to a press release from the company, to use it the app you just spy the face of a stranger with Glass’ camera, and the app will “compare it to millions of records and in seconds return a match complete with a name, additional photos and social media profiles.” 

“With the NameTag app running on Google Glass a user can simply glance at someone nearby and instantly see that person’s name, occupation and even visit their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter profiles in real-time,” the company adds. 

They’re also working on technology to allow the scanning of photos on dating profiles, and to compare images against criminal databases too, including “450,000 entries in the National Sex Offender Registry.”

Technically, the app’s not allowed on Google Glass—facial recognition apps are banned—but it can be used on jailbroken devices. And aside from the fact that facial recognition technology is generally just pretty creepy, it brings with it a whole host of privacy issues.

I've reached out to NameTag to try to confirm how they'll get people's information but haven't heard back yet. However, it doesn't seem like people will have to agree to anything before the app can be used on them, which is the sticky part.

First up in blatantly obvious problems with the app is stalker potential. That guy you’re trying to avoid who’s been following you for the past few blocks? Thanks to a glance through his Glass, he now knows your name, where you work, and a host of other details about you. Good luck shaking that one.

Image via FacialNetwork

Now, it’s true that the app can apparently only give users access to information that’s already publicly available—someone can already “stalk” your public Facebook profile online—but the facial recognition adds a new aspect to this kind of exchange. Usually, someone would have to know your full name to bring up your social media profiles. While these things are technically “public,” there’s a tacit understanding that people have to be in some way acquainted with you, or have something in common, in order to find your information. 

Facial recognition bypasses this step. In the release, NameTag’s creator, Kevin Tussy, said, “It’s not about invading anyone’s privacy; it’s about connecting people that want to be connected.” But in this scenario, only one person wants to connect. The other might want to mind their own business.

And the app does seem geared to this sort of one-way-only interaction. As soon as a NameTag user “asks consent” to see that information—like someone on Tinder asking your full name so they can find your Facebook profile—it's basically rendered superfluous. You could just use Google. 

The second major problem I see with this app is almost the opposite of stalking; it’s people avoiding people because they find out something unappealing from their face scan, such as that they have a criminal record or are a registered sex offender. 

If you’re faced with someone who you know little about except that they have a criminal record, your instinct is probably to shun them. As one of the NameTag team says in the demo video above when he scans someone called Stanley who has a record, “If you scan him you probably want to run the other way.” You can imagine that some over-eager vigilante wannabes might even be a little less polite than that.

But this seems like a massive breach of poor Stanley’s privacy. Because as long as you’re not scanning faces in prison, he presumably has every right to be living in the normal world like anyone else. Sure, his criminal record—depending exactly what it is—probably impacts what he’s able to do with his life in terms of job prospects and maybe even living and socialising arrangements. But it seems unfair it should send strangers running away in the street when he’s minding his own business grocery shopping. 

Again, these records are already publicly available. But presumably most people would have to have reason to suspect someone before they’d check their criminal history. The developers claim the face scanning app could make “online dating and offline social interactions much safer,” but unless you don’t know your date’s name, it doesn’t offer much more than you could do with a regular search—except added privacy invasion.

Perhaps the most cynical part of the whole idea, though, is that the creators do plan to offer people a way to avoid being face-scanned like this—but it looks like you have to sign up to their site to do it. “People will soon be able to login to www.NameTag.ws and choose whether or not they want their name and information displayed to others,” Tussy explained in the release. Is the true idea behind NameTag, then, a social network that you have to opt out of?

Either way, as the full creepiness of Google Glass’ potential reveals itself, I think I’m increasingly likely to run away from anyone wearing the headset long before worrying if they’re a sex offender or not.

Topics: apps, Google Glass, NameTag, facial recognition, dating, sex offenders, social networks

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