It was confirmed last week that Google is acquiring, a visual search engine that focuses on helping people shop for clothing and accessories online. While most stories are spinning this as Google’s attempt to improve its product search engine and make inroads into the e-commerce marketplace, I see this acquisition differently.

It is important to realize that before was helping people find shoes and watches online, its technology was the core of Riya, a photo sharing and search site that allowed users to upload, tag and search images based on facial recognition technology. Users simply uploaded their photo library to Riya, tag faces in a handful of the photos, and then Riya’s facial recognition technology took over and attempt to automatically tag different faces it “recognizes” so that you don’t have to. Riya’s vision was to expand this facial recognition beyond an individual’s library, and eventually reach every digital photo scattered across the Web.

Over 4 years ago, I wrote about the privacy implications of Riya’s facial recognition technology here and here. I warned then:

Sure, it would be great if I could easily search for pictures of me on the web, but do I want others to be able to do that as well? Could this provide a useful tool for stalkers looking for a particular person? Abusive partners trying to track down their victim? (Note that Riya also uploads and indexes all the metadata related to your photos, including the date and time is was taken, when it was uploaded, etc. Users can also tag and search photos based on location). …there are externalities once all of the images of our daily lives (and their related metadata) are uploaded to the Internet, indexed, searchable, and accessible to all.

Google almost bought Riya back in 2006, but acquired Neven Vision instead, and soon integrated basic facial recognition into its image search results, and, later, into Picasa and Orkut.

With the purchase of, Google obtains the original Riya technology. Coupled with other recent social networking related acquisitions, Google appears poised to make a run at Facebook, with Riya providing the means to automate photo tagging at a scale Riya could only have dreamed of. What remains to be seen is how carefully Google will consider the privacy implications of unleashing powerful face recognition technology on throngs of users.

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