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Google Buys PittPatt, Gains Facial Recognition

PittPatt's facial recognition technology is likely to enhance Google's set of social, image, and video services.

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Google has acquired Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, or PittPatt, a company that makes facial recognition software for images and video, but insists it won't deploy the technology until it deals with the privacy issues.

"We've said that we won't add face recognition to our apps or product features unless we have strong privacy protections in place, and that's still the case," a Google spokesperson said in an email. "The Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition team has developed innovative technology in the area of pattern recognition and computer vision. We think their research and technology can benefit our users in many ways, and we look forward to working with them."

PittPatt, a startuped founded in 2004 by computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, disclosed the deal on its website last week, though no price was cited. The company noted that computer vision technology is central to several Google products like Image Search, YouTube, Picasa, and Goggles, and that it anticipates continuing to develop the technology for photo organization, as well as for video and mobile applications.

Google's spokesperson declined to comment on whether the technology might find a use in Google+, the company's nascent social network.

Google has a longstanding interest in visual search technology but has deployed it carefully, knowing that it makes many people uncomfortable. In 2009, the company introduced Google Goggles, software that can recognize certain kinds of images. At the time, Google's Vic Gundotra, then VP of engineering, said that Google had elected not to include the ability to recognize faces until it understood the privacy implications better.

But Google has continued to pursue image recognition technology. In 2010, it bought, a visual product matching engine derived from facial recognition technology developed by Riya. Around the same time, it filed a patent application titled, "Facial Recognition With Social Network Aiding." This year, it introduced a new image matching capability in Image Search.

Facebook, unlike Google, elected to deploy facial recognition technology to help its users recognize and tag friends in photos. The fact that it enabled the technology by default prompted complaints from security and privacy experts. The company subsequently acknowledged that it could have handled the introduction of Tag Suggestions better, but has maintained that users can alter their privacy settings to avoid having their names suggested in friends' photos.

The path forward for both Google and Facebook may be simply to not use the term "facial recognition." Facebook, in its blog post announcing the company's intention to deploy facial recognition technology, manages to avoid using the term at all. And just as Google prefers "invalid clicks" and "interest-based advertising" to more emotionally-loaded terms like "click fraud" and "behavioral advertising," the search advertising giant is likely to pursue "pattern recognition" rather than "facial recognition" technology, even if the two are essentially the same thing.

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