CNBC Disruptor 50

Face it, this new Blippar mobile app may creepily destroy your privacy

Key Points
  • Blippar is No. 30 on the 2017 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.
  • Blippar's app now recognizes the faces of 270,000 public figures.
  • Face-prints will replace things like credit cards for day-to-day transactions, says CEO.
Blippar is developing facial recognition technology to match people's faces with publicly available information on the internet

Those awkward moments — like when you blank on the name of someone you run into at a party or at the gym — could soon become a thing of the past.

The facial recognition technology created by artificial intelligence company Blippar (No. 30 on this year's CNBC Disruptor 50 list) lets users point a mobile camera at a person and instantly pull any information about them that is available on the internet.

Good-bye handbags, wallets and credit cards

"A very large part of who we are as an identifiable individual uniquely is our face," said CEO Ambarish Mitra.

"It could be one of the biggest ways of how we transact day to day, so that there are no more handbags or credit cards," he said.

Blippar has already compiled the face prints of more than a quarter of a million public figures, such as celebrities and politicians. By the end of the year, anyone will be able to upload their facial biometrics so the app can "recognize" them, said Mitra.

Meet the 2017 CNBC Disruptor 50 companies

The company is in talks to license its technology so that others can build their own products and services that use facial recognition, said Mitra. For example, it could be used in hospitals to help prompt Alzheimer's patients to recognize family members, or at conferences to help people figure out who to network with, he said.

The database will not include anyone under the age of 16, and private individuals must opt in. The company will delete anyone who asks to be scrubbed from memory, he said.

Privacy and the "creep" factor 

Still, privacy advocates are skeptical that the technologies' benefits outweigh its potential pitfalls, and have warned that people are not ready to merge their digital and real-life personas.

"Even though they are using publicly available information, my guess is, most people would not understand what that includes, because data collection is so opaque," said Michelle De Mooy from the Center for Democracy & Technology.

"The information that comes up about you is curated and may not be a reflection of the person that you are, or something that you would agree to being used as a representation of you," she said.

A Pew Research study published in 2015 found that 91 percent of adults believed consumers had lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies, and some 74 percent said it is "very important" to them to have control of who can get information about them.

The shift toward this type of technology is well under way, said Mitra.

Facebook already trying to 'out-Snap' Snap: Damodaran

"Anybody can take a picture of us and tag us as something else on [Facebook's] Instagram," he said. "Pictures are being uploaded as the single biggest activity on the internet."

He added, "There is an ethics-related debate about it, but I don't think facial recognition is going to go down that route at all."

But privacy advocates see the potential for abuse as a big concern. The database will be a target for hackers and the technology could be misused to spy on people or harass them, said De Mooy.

This is particularly concerning in the context of potential government use and vulnerable communities, she said. Law enforcement is increasingly exploring the use of facial recognition technology and this could give them yet another tool, said De Mooy.

"Privacy becomes almost something that is a luxury good," she said.

Competition from big tech

Facebook is an example of a company that heeded people's privacy concerns early on, and has continually tweaked its products to give people more control, said De Mooy.

Big tech companies like Apple, Alphabet and Facebook — with their vast troves of data and scores of engineers working on AI technology — would be well-positioned to deliver this type of technology. But Mitra is not worried about competition.

"You should never forget that IBM could have built Microsoft and Microsoft could have built Google and Google could have built Facebook and Facebook could have built Snapchat," he said. "They had both intellectual and financial resources to do it, but sometimes companies need some amount of dedicated focus and obsession over a certain topic."

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