Stalker Heaven: Snap a Picture, Get an Identification

I’m generally someone who lives a very public existence and suggests that most people get used to that notion.  Google, however, is about to test our limits here.  They’re apparently about to introduce a mobile application comparable to their existing Goggles but instead of identifying places, it identifies people. [UPDATE:  Google denies working on such an app or at least terms it speculative.  In any instance, my observations below stand.]   Even to me, this one is creepy.  They’re already defending it by saying the default is “opt out” and that users must explicitly choose to share their pictures and information.  I have so many problems with this approach that I can’t begin to address them all.  But here are just a few:

  • “Informed consent” is only reasonable where the individual involves is making an “informed” decision.  Are people really going to read the fine print before they opt in?  Of course not.  And even if they did, is Google going to manage things in a “do you really want to do this” fashion or are they going to say “great, you agreed, let’s move on and forget about what you’ve really just done here.”  They’ll do nothing to discourage participation.
  • These things are a moving target.  Remember when you signed up for Facebook?  If it was more than a year ago, your privacy options were fairly limited then.  Only under extreme scrutiny and now the threat of governmental intervention has Facebook made its changes and defaults more open and user-friendly.
  • We’re doing things we never thought about when we signed up for a platform.  Facebook at first was about connecting with “friends” and sharing status messages.  We’re now sharing pictures and, even more  intimate, location.  I’ve only friended people on Foursquare (a location-based service) who I care to have know where I happen to be.  I’ve got over a thousand friends on Facebook, some of whom I don’t care to have know where I’ve checked in and where I happen to be.  I’ve set up a group on Facebook called “location OK” and have only included those friends whom I’m comfortable having know where I’m located, and I’ve set my privacy settings on Facebook so that Places check-ins can only be seen by members of that group?  Have you done that?  Do you know anyone else who has done that?  Probably not.  You set up your settings for a use case that may no longer be the case, and haven’t adapted.  This “creeping  incrementalism” has made it easy for you to ignore this stuff.  Managing Facebook and Google is no longer simple.
  • Deep integration.  You have no idea how much information you’re sharing across networks.  Every time you click “allow” to sign in with Facebook or Twitter, you’ve set up a data-sharing arrangement that goes well beyond what you ever intended.  Go look at your Twitter and Facebook settings and see how many people you’ve enabled to have access to your data and credentials.  I’ll bet you don’t even know what half of the things you’ve got in there are.  When I sign in like this, I change their default setting so that the approval is good for one day only.  Of course the default is “until revoked” which is polite language for saying “forever, because you’ll forget about this 10 seconds after you clicked it.”

As I said, I could go on and on.  So what’s going to happen here.  The scariest thing is that this mess has created a situation where the government’s going to step in to help save us.  Yikes!  Grandstanding politicians.  Just what we need here.  What we really need is for someone to create a really great privacy management tool that helps us manage all the complex relationships we’ve established and manage all the information we’re sharing in an easy-to-use, coordinated, centralized fashion.  Apple and Facebook and Google and Amazon are going to fight you at every step.  That leaves you, Microsoft.  Symantec?  Cisco (who needs to boost its consumer initiatives anyhow)?

Someone tell me a legitimate use case for this software, beyond stalking.  “I should know their name but I forgot”?  “They look familiar but I’m too embarrassed to ask”?  If this were anyone but Google (or other big players), I might ignore this app.  But Google?!  Do no evil??  This will be used for evil.

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2 Responses

  1. Your negative response to this potential privacy disruptor is quite understandable. We’ve witnessed many larger strides in this direction in the past 30 years, and this one admittedly has its litany of possible misuses.

    Who here carries a device in their pocket all day every day which allows their coordinates to be determined at any time? I do. Likely you do too. Why do we allow this potential privacy disruption? It’s worth more to us than it hurts us.

    Applying a similar cost-benefit analysis to a democratized, voluntary, facial identification platform, I come up leaning a little bit your way. Who are likely to grant permission to the Google community to identify their face? The gullible (those, you mention, who don’t read well enough), the brazen and brave (the “good guys” and the tech pioneers), and the vain (those who also tweet about their healthy breakfast and workout stats). Any others?

    So while I would retort your cynicism with “but criminals could be easily identified” or “more like an anti-stalking app”, I doubt those subjects will grant Google permission to have their facial identification made facile.

    On the other hand, Google has shown us many times over that facilitating the people to obtain more information more quickly yields generally and exceedingly positive results. I have certain hope that making persons knowingly more identifiable will in turn make them more conscientious citizens both of the intertubes and the world-at-large.

    Please don’t use technology for evil. I implore you.

  2. Kerry, you raise another interesting point that I hope to address in the near future with regards to the privacy issue. Many people treat privacy as an absolute, a black-and-white issue. In fact, I think there are relative degrees of privacy. More importantly, that privacy has an imputed value. There are a whole bunch of things that we today get for free on the Internet in exchange for our lack of privacy because by surrendering our privacy, we become more interesting (and monetizable) to the publisher. I think going foward, we will have actually have some explicit choices: maintain privacy but pay for (or forego) certain services, or surrender some of that privacy in exchange for free/discounted/wider services.

    As for the criminals being easily identified, there are actually deployments of those types of technologies already. The most interesting one that I’ve seen locally is a police car driving around with four or six cameras mounted on it. It automatically scans license plates and runs them against a variety of databases to seek for violations, expirations and other notable events.

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