Researchers at Rice University have developed a system for remotely searching images stored on mobile devices. The goal of the software, called Theia, is to give searchers a near-realtime view of what is being photographed on with now-ubiquitous camera phones. It’s like that bit in The Dark Knight where Batman turns every phone in Gotham into a sonar/microphone, except with pictures and it’s for real.
Obviously, there are going to be some privacy concerns with something like this, but let’s focus on why this information would be useful. The most dramatic example would be that of a lost or abducted child. With Theia, law enforcement could search cell phones the world over for the child, hoping to catch an image accidentally caught by someone’s phone. The hope is that with the staggering number of camera-equipped cellphones in the world, someone will catch what you’re looking for — intentionally or not.
The system works through a server for addressing the searches and an app installed onto the phones.In the initial development of the software, the Android smartphone platform was used. The version of the app used for the study gives remarkable control to the phone’s owner, allowing him or her to choose the amount processor power Theia uses. The app also makes use of the phone’s geolocation information. For instance, when a search turns up a positive match, it looks to nearby phones for more matches.
Ok, now we can talk about privacy concerns. In their report, the developers believe that restricting Theia’s access to certain user-designated folders would assuage most users’ concerns. That way, Theia only searches the photos you designate as searchable. That leads to the question of why anyone would volunteer that information in the first place. In their report, I Programmer suggests that money could be a factor. They forsee a business model where users with the Theia app get paid to allow access to their photos. Perhaps they’ll have the exact angle an ad company or news organization needs. There’s the social responsibility from the above child-abduction scenario as well.
But what about the other side? Even with personal privacy controls and monetary incentives, one wonders how many people would willingly become a part of a passive spy network. The concept is sound, and there certainly is potential for this kind of technology, but it would likely have to overcome an initial ick-factor to be successful. Perhaps instead of individual cell phones, Theia’s creators could consider applying this technology to satellite networks or smartphones for police and soldiers.
It seems that Theia is ready to start digging through the photos of the world, but the world may not be ready for Theia.