Where Everybody Knows Your Name… And Face

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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.


  1. I’m one of those parents that has been posting pictures of my kid online since (before) birth. To me, that’s about comfort level with the fact that the web just isn’t private and knowing that there are millions of other parents doing the same. Nothing has happened yet to damage my comfort level. I post according to certain personal boundaries.
    I have a lot of respect for Jeff Jarvis’ views on publicness as well. I also think you can live publicly and helpfully without revealing the most intimate details of your life. And I think he’s right that no one cares about the awkward photos from the past – we all have them.
    I love technology and social media and all it does for us, but I think there are ramifications of using facial recognition technology that can compromise safety. I’m okay with tag suggestions as long as it’s people that I know and am connected to. But if my face showed up in the pictures of a crowd in public and someone I don’t know can tag me? That crosses a line I’m not okay with. It brings to mind many people who use pseudonyms because of various circumstances in their lives. This kind of tech could make it impossible for them to use social media without being revealed.

  2. Dear Joel – While my tolerance level for FB privacy maneuvers and comfort level with tagged photos is far lower than yours, I accept that this is a fact of life.
    A hundred years ago, a personal image amounted to a stiff family portrait taken in dark parlor. Today, it’s an smart phone picture taken on the run to capture the moment. It unfortunately exists without the equivalent social force from a previous age – like Emily Post.
    In one way, the technology forces us to be our authentic selves from birth on or die of immortal shame. I suspect the sheer volume of tagged photos will at some point erase any social embarrassment we might suffer today and will dull the senses of the masses for what is embarrassing. For example a scenario of a 45 year old in a position of prominence may have undesirable photos come to light or an entire photo essay of their life dredged up from the bowels of the internet, but there’ll be so much of it around for everyone that the common reaction will be – “yeah – so?”. If there was an Emily Post at that juncture she’ll likely coach us on making sense of the photo essay and responding politely.
    The technology is just another reason for clearing our mental debris as early in life as possible and live a life where the inside is congruent with the outside.
    Thank you for a very thought provoking post.
    Carolyn Winter

  3. Your TV will be watching you. Your phone keeps tabs on you. Facebook will know your evolution and your life and friends from birth. And that’s the stuff that’s already known to the public.
    But hey that new iPhone 5 sure does rock!
    No ones cares.
    And I reckon one day people will long for their privacy back.

  4. What about mistaken identities? That’s where I could see innocent people getting tagged for things they didn’t do or for being who they are not.
    What surprises me is when I can’t find images of people I want to know more about. My brother has worked very hard at keeping his life private and off the web with pretty good success. And, other friends and peers do the same. (Not me. I’ve blown any chance of going off the grid.) They will all be pretty upset about this. I can even imagine some of them refusing to be in any more family photos or group photos of any kind.

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