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London - We've all been caught unawares in the digital crosshair. It's one of the unfortunate side effects of leaving the house these days; as more people become faintly obsessed with documenting what's going on around them, we stand a good chance of achieving social media immortality against our will.
Every week I receive notifications that I appear in some photo on Facebook - and every week I'll untag myself, unless I'm looking particularly handsome, which is rare and getting rarer.
This debate simmers endlessly; how much care should we take over accidentally compromising the privacy of others, and how much right do people have to be angry when they see themselves captured in tweets, photographs or videos?
Privacy campaigners became flustered the other week when writer Janey Godley live-blogged a row going on between a man and a woman on a train and used sufficient detail for them both to be identifiable. It's telling that when I just googled “couple arguing on train” to check Godley's name, dozens of candid YouTube videos were returned featuring furious couples bickering on public transport. It's the kind of celebrity no one wants, that no one has asked for.
Last week YouTube launched a feature that could spare the blushes of those couples. “Blur All Faces” does exactly what it says on the button; I tested it on one of my own woozy creations and there were suddenly jelly-like blobs on people's shoulders where their heads used to be.
The software isn't infallible; odd angles and poor lighting can confuse it. But it's being touted by YouTube as a boon for any activists who seek to expose injustice without putting individuals at risk, and is a direct response to last year's Cameras Everywhere report that demanded technology companies start to protect and empower these people.
Whether digital voyeurs on trains will also choose to use this tool remains to be seen, though. It would certainly lessen the viral impact of their cheeky surveillance.
The irony is that while YouTube introduces a facility to blur the faces of individuals, its owner, Google, has been working hard on implementing and improving facial recognition technology. It bought a big player in that field, Pitt Patt, about this time last year, and just before Christmas equipped Google+ with a “Find My Face” feature which alerts you whenever you appear in your friends' photos. Facebook has had a similar feature for quite a while, and its recent acquisition of face.com has given it access to tens of billions of photo tags.
Of course, these new features are presented to us in a very benign way: they're time-saving benefits that save us hassle. But actually, they're so hamstrung by privacy issues that they are - perhaps thankfully - fairly pointless. So even if you're not of a paranoid bent, you can't help wondering what the real benefit to these internet giants will ultimately be, now that they control a potentially powerful faceprint database.
A recent US Congressional hearing entitled “What facial recognition technology means for privacy and civil liberties” hauled Facebook's privacy manager, Rob Sherman, over the coals. He stressed, again, that these facial-recognition features only operate within one's circle of friends. But some envisage a time when facial recognition is used for targeted advertising; others note with a raised eyebrow that very similar technology was used to identify offenders in last summer's UK riots.
Should be we worried? I don't believe that we live in a digital surveillance state, but the ingredients for a frighteningly efficient one are being kept in cupboards that are disconcertingly adjacent. - The Independent