Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
September 25, 2012 9:39 AM

Where Everybody Knows Your Name... And Face

Have you ever found yourself being tagged in a Facebook picture that makes you feel just a little bit uncomfortable?

Things just got a whole lot creepier. We live in a day and age when people rage against the machine when Facebook changes their terms and service and yet, the majority of these same people have no issue posting pictures of their children from birth on up to Facebook. Think about it this way: how comfortable would you feel knowing that photos of you from your birth to this very waking moment were all posted online for (nearly) everyone to see? I'm none-to-thrilled about some of the personal fashion statements that I made back in the eighties and nineties, and I'm sure you've got photo albums filled with awkward pictures you would like to forget as well. Well, what right do we have in posting our children's lives to an online social network, anyway?

First world problems in a hyper-connected society.

With all of the scrutiny from privacy advocates, Facebook continues to make significant and positive strides in assuring the population that our ability to tag (and untag) photos of ourselves that are posted by others in their online social network is easily done. Some might argue that Facebook could do more to protect these rights, while some would argue that the privacy settings are fairly straightforward and award a high degree of user control. Either way, in June of this year many digital media pundits did a double-take when the world's largest online social network acquired an Israeli facial recognition technology called, Face.com. While the $60 million dollar acquisition didn't get the same amount of press that Facebook's billion dollar acquisition of Instagram garnered, make no mistake about it: Facebook has a laser-like focus on how we are all connected to our mobile devices, social media and our passion to take and share photos (some stats state that over 250 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook). Face.com's specialty is facial recognition on the mobile and smartphone platforms. In its simplest terms: imagine uploading a picture to Facebook and it can tell you who should be tagged (and these are people that you may... or may not... even be connected to).

Is this technology real or science fiction?

It is real. This past week, Facebook back-peddled on the integration of the Face.com technology by appeasing European regulators and ensuring that it would not only stop using what they were referring to as a "tag suggestion" when a user uploaded a photo, but that the company would also delete all data that was captured to identify Facebook members by their photos. Facebook seemed to have forgotten how much public uproar happens when surveillance devices are placed in public spaces (and it would not be hard to argue that Facebook is now a very open public space for the billion-plus members that it serves). It just creeps people out. While "tag suggestion" hasn't been live for any Facebook user in months, the company is now saying that it will only put it back online once the feature meets with the approval of regulators, both here and abroad.

Beyond the legal issues, this is a question scruples. 

Ultimately, we - the loyal and passionate users of Facebook - have to ask if this type of technology is right or wrong? Is it good or bad? You can think of countless examples where individuals could be captured, tagged and published in photos that are subsequently pushed to the Internet that could either harm them or make them feel uncomfortable. Media pundit and journalism professor, Jeff Jarvis, argues that we must re-define "privacy" in our socially connected iPhone totting world. His latest book, Public Parts, submits that privacy is no longer about closing the curtains at night and delisting our phone numbers, but in accepting that a public life creates a better life, mostly because nobody really cares about that awkward photo of you when you were sixteen or that you're married with three kids. There's just so much information being published in tweets, status updates and blog posts, that we're all snow-blind from the constant stream of digital bits of content about our mundane lives. Arianna Huffington from The Huffington Post claims that, "self expression is the new entertainment," and maybe she's right: we're doing it to ourselves. If we all post photos of ourselves and our children to the Web, we are creating a new, personal, media channel. To have the expectation that this information is privileged may be the core issue here. A friend recently said to me that social media is the best thing ever created... unless you have teenagers, then it's the worst thing ever created. Facial recognition technology is something that we're all going to have to get used to. The question becomes: how do we control information in a world where everything can be recorded in text, images, audio and video and instantly published for free to the world?

This all seems less about the technology and much more about the world we, the global citizens, want to create and inhabit.

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure.

By Mitch Joel


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