Eric Schmidt, who served as Google's CEO from 2001 until about two months ago, is speaking candidly about what decisions the company makes that effect us all. One big one: facial recognition, Schmidt said, is something he thinks can be used in a "very bad way as well as a very good way," but the bad was too much to ignore, it seems.
In fact, facial recognition is the only feature to Schmidt's mind that the company started and stopped: "We actually built that technology and we withheld it. As far as I know it's the only technology Google built and after looking at it we decided to stop." That's different than, say, Wave, which Google released and then killed.
Google is often seen as the "do no evil" company, one that weighs the moral impact of the technology it produces. At the same time, the company promotes an open playground, one that feels like the wild west compared to Apple's platform, which is full of safety scissors and rounded corners. Both companies are, of course, endlessly innovative.
Google does have the ability to recognize what's in a photo through Google Goggles. Likewise, facial recognition apps aren't outlawed or anything on Google's Android platform, which was pointed out to Schmidt by AllThingsD's Walt Mossberg. In response, Schmidt, who currently serves as Google's executive chairman, acknowledged that it was true that Google doesn't block such apps as, say, Apple might — that would go against that openness, of course — and that facial recognition apps were perfectly legal.
So, what's the danger? After all, Google is already all up in our faces with its robotic Street View minions. For Schmidt, it comes down to facial recognition as a tool:
"If you imagine, for example, what a perfectly executing evil dictator would do with all this technology — complete supervision, complete tracking, and so forth — and then you imagine what the dissident in that society would do, using the very best encryption tools and so forth, unfortunately you conclude that exactly the same tools are the ones that would be used by terrorists against an open society."Schmidt cited face tracking and recognition as one such technology that could be abused.
He did close with this, though: "Our strategy is to remain open, and should regulations come out — and I suspect they will in these democracies — these kinds of apps would become illegal." So, Google won't actively take down something it dislikes in most cases.
You can see Schmidt talking about facial recognition — as well as make some interesting points about privacy — in his D9 interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher by clicking this link.
Schmidt also made some waves talking about Google's relationship with Facebook, saying that the company "screwed up" in not going toe-to-toe with the social network in a more impactful way. Makes sense, when you consider that Facebook's users sharing links with one another is now a search engine unto itself, which in turn is a bad thing for Google. You can read a good write-up covering it over on Ars Technica.