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Facial recognition technology has been around for three decades. But the mobile and social revolutions are rapidly driving the field forward, as digital photos proliferate, cloud computing powers accelerate and software capabilities advance.

The more tagged photos there are of any given person – in different lighting conditions and from different angles – the more accurate the results become. In May, Face.com said it had scanned more than 41 billion photos, which could be combined with Facebook’s own massive collection. Last year, the company said it had 100 billion images on file, with users adding more than 100 million tags per day.

Tech giants including Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo also employ facial recognition technology in photo, video and gaming products, as do a handful of lesser known mobile app companies.

To their credit, most of these businesses allow users to turn off facial recognition features (Apple’s iPhoto being a notable exception). Facebook enables users to prevent friends from tagging their photos and allows them to apply facial recognition only to people within their network.

Odds are that a database on some server somewhere in the world contains your “faceprint”: a digital representation of the shapes and spacings that make your mug yours.

“Facial recognition blows up assumptions that we don’t wear our identities on our person; it turns our faces into name tags,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “It can be good and helpful, or it can be dangerous.”

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