As you may have read, Facebook has integrated facial recognition technology into its photo-tagging feature. The technology "suggests" friends' names for photos as you upload them when it recognizes similar facial features from photos you have previously tagged. The availability of this feature -- and the fact that it is turned on by default in the U.S. -- has created quite a stir this week among privacy advocates.
I, however, don't think that this issue has much to do with privacy. No, the ability to recognize someone's photo is all about publicness, and one's control over someone else's identity, but it's not about privacy.
Privacy is only about private or secluded information. The protection of a person's privacy is about the ability/obligation to shield information about a person that has been kept private, secluded from others and from the public. Additionally, in many societies, including the U.S., there are also laws and regulations that govern the management and protection of specific types of information deemed to be personal and which drive privacy protections.
Recognition is all about publicity. Some folks -- celebrities, for example -- might not always want to be recognized when they walk down the street, and may take measures to prevent recognition, such as wearing dark glasses or baggy clothing. However, it is not a violation of their privacy if they are recognized. A public fact is a public fact. If people don't want to be recognized, then they need to avoid going to public places. According to law, if you put yourself out there on purpose, you open yourself up to everything -- from criticism to being recognized.
Publicity is no longer scarce. Virtually everything that you do outside the secure confines of your home is not only public -- as it's always been -- but is now recorded by the hundreds of millions of connected devices with digital cameras, and is being uploaded and made available to everyone else in the world in searchable databases. This is the growing reality of our digital networked world.
The network can't forget. Some folks would like to return to a world that could be forgetful of past events. There were far fewer photos of us, which tended to be more staged, and spent most of their useful lives locked up in dusty albums, only to be brought out sporadically at special occasions. No more. Now, every image any person or device has captured of you will be available for all to see. And, unfortunately for those who would like to craft their image or identity to selectively forget some moments or images of their past (think Rep. Weiner), the network can't be made to forget. With a global Internet with billions of collection points and just as many storage points, the network cannot forget.
An enormous issue in our future. The reality of an inescapable public world is an issue we are all going to hear a lot more about. (Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine has a book coming out on the topic, "Public Parts.") We will see governments try to step in. Some in the EU are considering new regulations to make the Internet "forget" facts and photos from the past. Web services companies are trying to differentiate themselves on this issue. Google's Eric Schmidt is already on record against building a facial recognition database, declaring that it would cross the "creepy line."
What do you think? Are you ready for everything you have done or said in public to remain that way forever?