A book of faces – literally


The “suggest photos of me to friends” option on Facebook is actually an elaborate ruse designed to biometrically scan your face into a database of 1.2 billion users, so that it can help your friends tag you in photos from last night’s pub crawl that you’d much rather not be made public. It’s not a flawless system – facial recognition systems usually rely on a certain feature as the basis for comparison and identification. Facebook uses the space between your eyebrows, which, though frequently very accurate, does pose frustration for identical twins or doppelgängers.

Once, Facebook suggested I tag a painting of Chinese president Xi Jinping as my 65-year-old aunt. Needless to say, my aunt is not the president of China (at least, as far as I’m aware).

Why does this matter? It means that if you have ever uploaded a profile picture, and neglected to navigate through Facebook’s labyrinthine privacy settings to disable the deceptively innocuous function of letting Facebook recognise your face, your physical features are currently sitting on a byte somewhere, ready to be used by advertisers, buyers, and the government.

Recently, there has been much furore over Facebook’s proposed privacy policy, which shifts legal language such that users must ask that their data not be used for advertising. This places the onus of data protection on Facebook members as opposed to the company itself.

Though many consider Facebook’s relentless pursuit of more information unbelievably insidious, I personally am getting a little fed up with all the fuss about Facebook privacy. If this summer has taught us anything, it is that apparently none of us are exempt from surveillance by the United States government. In fact, we are probably, in some way, shape or form, watched by almost every government in the world.

If PRISM – the National Security Agency (NSA)’s secret surveillance program – has been violating our privacy for ages, why do we care if Facebook releases our ‘liked’ pages for money?Facebook is a business: in order to keep itself afloat without charging a registration fee, it  needs to sell information about our preferences to advertisers and marketers, which in turn use it to monitor trending topics in the hopes of getting an edge on their market and making a profit.

Why must people get so riled up about what is essentially a cold business deal? Admittedly, the function is a little creepy. It’s quite unnerving to know that each time I ‘tag’ a photo on Facebook, its facial recognition technology leans more about what my friends and I look like.

‘Opting out’ of this feature only means that Facebook will stop suggesting my name to others as they tag photographs. It won’t stop Facebook from perfecting its stored image of me through other tagged photos. Facial recognition is just one of the harsh realities of the digital world. Nothing is private so long as we use social networks – our thoughts, plans, and contacts are out there for the world to see, and it is naive to believe that our face can remain hidden.
We will always be traceable. Heck, our last hope was Lavabit – an encrypted email site launched in 2004 to combat Google Mail’s violations of user privacy – but even that has shut down thanks to America’s relentless intelligence gathering and our old pal Snowden.
Unless you work for the CIA or are conspiring to overthrow the Syrian regime, I sincerely doubt privacy really means that much to you. If it really does, I’m afraid your only option is to go off the grid. Completely. No Internet, no phone, no bankcards or security passes – in this day and age, with digital technology, every interaction you have or transaction you make is tracked and stored. That information can then be accessed by anyone with the right connections – both literally and figuratively. Today’s data-hoarding world means that, to be truly private, you must move to a cottage in the country side, and sit with your dog and a rifle on a mattress stuffed with cash.
Even then, know that your information will still be in the hands of those who issued your driver’s license, passport, and any form of membership or clubcard. The sheer amount of information held by institutions and companies other than Facebook makes the outrage over perpetual privacy “scandals” a farce.
I remember looking at a friend’s group photo and placing my cursor over each of the faces on the screen. Of everyone, the only people that Facebook recognised were the two Chinese girls in the group. If anything, Mark Zuckerberg must be having a field day, given the amount of Asian girls on Facebook


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