Facebook puts even more of your life out there (get over it)
No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
"If you aren't paying for it, you are not the customer; you're the product being sold."
On Tuesday it was reported that Facebook had enabled facial recognition of its photos. Facebook already has a long history of being terrible on user security and privacy issues. Beginning with its Beacon debacle four years ago it has established a very clear pattern: expose as much user information as publicly as possible, create an absurdly convoluted (via) way to manage it, roll it out without telling anyone, enable it for everyone by default, and only roll it back if it gets discovered and a hue and cry results.
Now, per the quote at the top, Facebook users have no reason to complain about any of this. They are not customers, they are the product being sold. User data is Facebook's most valuable asset, and finding ways to monetize it is its business model. In a way it is not that much different from a magazine pitching its subscriber list to potential advertisers.
Most users do not seem to have thought of themselves like that, though, and so every time Facebook does something like this it kicks up some dust. But beyond the tech community there does not seem to be a great deal of awareness of it. Even within that community its implications seem to be downplayed. The IT world seems to have a somewhat libertarian bent, so the presumption is generally that businesses can do what they want and problems can be sorted out privately.
To the extent that alarms are sounded, it is over the potential for government repression, with this from Ian Paul as an example:
While I doubt Coca-Cola or Nike could derive much benefit from identifying your face...the biggest creep factor would be if this database fell into the hands of governments.
But there already are huge government-controlled facial databases of the world's citizens. Whenever you get a driver's license, government-issued identity card, a travel visa or even a passport your photo ends up in a government office. The US government also takes a digital photo and fingerprint scan of almost every single foreign citizen that crosses its borders. If the government wants to see a photo of your face, it doesn't really need Facebook to get it.
(That fatalistic attitude echoes Scott McNealy's "you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it" line. The thinking is, if information is out there in any capacity then it may as well proliferate. It is a fool's errand to try and quarantine it or limit its spread.)
There are other unsettling possibilities, though. When Wisconsin professor William Cronon wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the protests in his state, he had a FOIA request sent for his UW email box submitted by a right wing activist group. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate a political opponent by subjecting him to unreasonable scrutiny.
What if there had been tagged photos of him at protests on someone's Facebook page? Put aside whether he is legally allowed to participate or if there are any ethical concerns with doing so. Just think about someone fishing around for those kind of pictures, then publishing them with screaming headlines about the appearance of impropriety (or God knows what else). Regardless of whether the accusation has merit, it will put the subject on the defensive and generally pressure the individual to disengage. It can be used to stifle debate and intimidate people from participating in public life. We already know the disturbing lengths some will go to in that effort. Add photos to the mix and it becomes even more combustible.
This is just one scenario; there are countless others. How about an employer keeping tabs on one of its workers, maybe for compliance to some corporate order - or maybe just out of idle curiosity. Maybe a manager wants an excuse to get rid of a nettlesome employee. Your life outside of work has previously unimagined visibility.
Most people do not equate being in public with having every public aspect of their lives exposed. Private data, including Social Security numbers and other sensitive items, are in the public record somewhere. Some courthouse, some legal proceeding, whatever. Does the fact that it is public anywhere make it fair to publicize everywhere?
With new technology like facial recognition rolling out we are increasingly in the position of basically having a virtual private eye following us around, documenting our activities and performing other private eye functions. For the most part it will lie there unnoticed and dormant - until someone takes an interest. Yes of course when we are in public there is by definition no expectation of privacy - but does that mean we should anticipate being fully exposed to the whole world the moment we step off our property? That conversation has not even started.