Facebook threatens privacy

It’s hard to peer into the future, but I think it’s safe to say that no other startup will ever top Facebook as the ultimate forces-you-to-become-a-stalker social network.

OK, some context here.

Last week, I posted a photo with a list of Halloween costumes on my friend’s wall. The photo was of a particularly creative option, if I may say so. The costume was “Photoshop” so, accordingly, the man featured in the photo wore the software’s logo on his stomach and had dotted lines around his body, as if selected with the lasso tool.

And this is where the trouble came in. Every time I attempted to post it to my friend’s wall, Facebook tried to tag one of our mutual friends. Why? I honestly couldn’t tell you. After all, I don’t upload many photos, so I’m not sure I’ve ever attempted to tag this particular friend in my life (or at least my Facebook life). Plus, the guy Facebook was insistent on tagging had grown a beard and, with it, especially looked nothing like the Photoshop costume model. Obviously, Facebook was behind the times.

After about three tries, I finally saw the slightly transparent “X” button to untag him.

Post went up. Got some likes. Done and done.

Then I thought about it a little more. And isn’t it slightly frightening that Facebook stores information (or tries to store information) about our physical identities? In a world in which we grow increasingly wary of the National Security Administration for tapping into our phones or reading our emails, the fact that Facebook can match (or try to match) us by our visual appearance is an issue of privacy that we don’t often think about.

Surely, on the surface, there is little to complain about. After all, we are the ones to willingly give over this information to Facebook. And, truth be told, this type of facial recognition often makes things, such as tagging on Facebook, more convenient.

Still, it’s a double-edged sword.

“There are obviously useful applications, like automatically tagging your buddies in a social-network photo or — on an entirely different scale — recognizing known terrorists at airports,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s James Temple back in June 2012. “But there are frightening ones as well: allowing authoritarian states to identify peaceful protesters, enabling companies to accrue ever greater insight into private lives or empowering criminals to dig up sensitive information about strangers.”

So while facial recognition might often yield benefits, it’s also a cause for concern. And it’s a #21stCenturyFear in the truest sense because it is indicative of a lack of control over who gets to access our technological identity.

There is now software for high-end retail stores that will identify when a famous guest is shopping in the store.

“If a face is a match, the program sends an alert to staff via computer, iPad or smartphone, providing details like dress size, favorite buys or shopping history,” according to NPR.

In a world in which we care about protecting our identities, it’s surprising that there’s little discussion about the collection of our physical information.

And when I say we care about protecting our identities, I mean we really care about protecting our identities. Just yesterday, I was at a coffee shop and asked for a cup of water. I hadn’t stopped at the ATM yet so I didn’t have cash or change on me. And so, when I was told that the cup of water would cost 50 cents, I had no choice but to pay with my credit card. As I went to pay, I was asked to show my ID.

I was honestly a little taken aback. In general, I believe checking one’s ID to confirm the identity on a credit card is a good thing. But, really, did they honestly think I had stolen a credit card to purchase a 50-cent cup of water? That thought is almost as crazy as the fact that they were charging me for water to begin with.

But that says a lot about how much we care about protecting identity and identity theft. And, as I said before, that’s a good thing.

Given the degree to which we care about protecting identity, it’s interesting that we don’t often talk about protecting our physical identities on the Internet. Perhaps it’s a result of the consequences being more abstract. It’s hard to imagine we would be terribly affected financially because software can recognize our face. Whereas it is quite easy to see one being financially impacted because one is using a credit card under his or her name.

Still, it’s something worth thinking about, discussing and debating. After all, it is the appearance of our face that we, more often than not, use to confirm our identity, whether it be at the airport or simply attempting to purchase a cup of water.


Daniel Rothberg is a junior majoring in political science. His column “21st Century Fears” runs Thursdays.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @danielrothberg