Facebook's facial recognition technology is a massive surveillance project

Facebook's facial recognition technology is a massive surveillance project

Summary: Steve Wilson examines a private sector surveillance project that has been going on for years in social media: facial recognition. Maybe you'll think twice before you post your next selfie.

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By Steve Wilson

The latest Snowden revelations include the NSA's special programs for extracting photos and identifying from the Internet. Amongst other things the NSA uses their vast information resources to correlate location cues in photos -- buildings, streets and so on -- with satellite data, to work out where people are. They even search especially for passport photos, because these are better fodder for facial recognition algorithms. The audacity of these government surveillance activities continues to surprise us, and their secrecy is abhorrent.

Yet an ever greater scale of private sector surveillance has been going on for years in social media. With great pride, Facebook recently revealed its R&D in facial recognition. They showcased the brazenly named "DeepFace" biometric algorithm, which is claimed to be 97 percent accurate in recognising faces from regular images. Facebook has made a swaggering big investment in biometrics.

Data mining needs raw material, there's lots of it out there, and Facebook has been supremely clever at attracting it. It's been suggested that 20 percent of all photos now taken end up in Facebook.Even three years ago, Facebook held 10,000 times as many photographs as the Library of Congress:

largest-photo-libraries-x500y400
Picture courtesy of the now retired 1000memories.com blog

 

Facebook will spend big bucks buying other photo lodes. Last year they tried to buy Snapchat for the spectacular sum of three billion dollars. The figure had pundits reeling. How could a start-up company with 30 people be worth so much? All the usual dot com comparisons were made; the offer seemed a flight of fancy.

But no, the offer was a rational consideration for the precious raw material that lies buried in photo data.

Snapchat generates at least 100 million new images every day. Three billion dollars was, pardon me, a snap. I figure that at a ballpark internal rate of return of 10 percent, a $3B investment is equivalent to $300M p.a. so even if the Snapchat volume stopped growing, Facebook would have been paying one cent for every new snap, in perpetuity.

These days, we have learned from Snowden and the NSA that communications metadata is just as valuable as the content of our emails and phone calls. So remember that it's the same with photos. Each digital photo comes from a device that embeds within the image metadata usually including the time and place of when the picture was taken. And of course each Instagram or Snapchat is a social post, sent by an account holder with a history and rich context in which the image yields intimate real time information about what they're doing, when and where.

The hallmark of the Snapchat service is transience: all those snaps are supposed to flit from one screen to another before vaporising. Now of course that idea is contestable; enthusiasts worked out pretty quickly how to retrieve snaps from old memory. And in any case, transience is a red herring, perhaps a deliberate distraction, because the metadata matters more, and Snapchat admits in its Privacy Policy that it pretty well keeps the lot.

When you access or use our Services, we automatically collect information about you, including:

  • Usage Information: When you send or receive messages via our Services, we collect information about these messages, including the time, date, sender and recipient of the Snap. We also collect information about the number of messages sent and received between you and your friends and which friends you exchange messages with most frequently.
  • Log Information: We log information about your use of our websites, including your browser type and language, access times, pages viewed, your IP address and the website you visited before navigating to our websites.
  • Device Information: We may collect information about the computer or device you use to access our Services, including the hardware model, operating system and version, MAC address, unique device identifier, phone number, International Mobile Equipment Identity ("IMEI") and mobile network information. In addition, the Services may access your device's native phone book and image storage applications, with your consent, to facilitate your use of certain features of the Services.
  • Location Information: With your consent, we may collect information about the location of your device to facilitate your use of certain features of our Services, determine the speed at which your device is traveling, add location-based filters to your Snaps (such as local weather), and for any other purpose described in this privacy policy.

Snapchat goes on to declare it may use any of this information to "personalize and improve the Services and provide advertisements, content or features that match user profiles or interests" and it reserves the right to share any information with "vendors, consultants and other service providers who need access to such information to carry out work on our behalf".

So back to the data mining: nothing stops Snapchat -- or a new parent company -- running biometric facial recognition over the snaps as they pass through the servers, to extract additional "profile" information. And there's an extra kicker that makes Snapchats extra valuable for biometric data miners. The vast majority of Snapchats are selfies. So if you extract a biometric template from a snap, you already know who it belongs to, without anyone having to tag it. Snapchat would provide a hundred million auto-calibrations every day for facial recognition algorithms! On Facebook, the privacy aware turn off photo tagging, but with Snapchats, self identification is inherent to the experience and is unlikely to be ever be disabled.

NSA has all your selfies

As I've discussed before, the morbid thrill of Snowden's spying revelations has tended to overshadow his sober observations that when surveillance by the state is probably inevitable, we need to be discussing accountability.

While we're all ventilating about the NSA, it's time we also attended to private sector spying and properly debated the restraints that may be appropriate on corporate exploitation of social data.

Personally I'm much more worried that an infomopoly has all my selfies.

Topics: IT Security in the Snowden Era, Security

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Constellation Research analyzes how disruptive technologies transform business models for an early adopter audience.

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