What Happens In Public Stays Public: Facial Recognition Is About Publicity, Not Privacy

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?

6 comments about "What Happens In Public Stays Public: Facial Recognition Is About Publicity, Not Privacy".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, June 9, 2011 at 2:11 p.m.

    All true, but why can't Facebook be forced by governments to make its privacy options robust by default and let users "opt-in" to new features? Because FB would lose value, and it's all about money,right?

    Eventually members will vote with their feet. A smart start-up would position itself as the social medium that CARES about its members. Clearly, FB does not, except as means to wealthy end.

  2. Rick Monihan from None, June 9, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.

    Terrific, as usual. Great breakout of the issue and why it's really not exactly about privacy.

    I find the whole facial recognition concept to be based on a faulty and flawed idea.

  3. Grant Cerny from Interactive One, June 9, 2011 at 4:07 p.m.

    I have to say this article doesn't address the core issue in the Facebook / Facial recognition debate.

    For me, the issue in this specific case is that Facebook allows other people to tag you (and your kids) in pictures that they upload. And, at that point, you (and your kids) are searchable and identifiable by other people, including malicious predators.

    Facebook has done a good job of creating privacy settings that disable people from tagging you in pictures. But if your kids don't have Facebook profiles, there is nothing stopping them from labeling your wife, or your children, or using a different name for you, for example.

    Unless I'm missing something, what Facebook has done by introducing facial recognition tagging is just to make it a lot easier for a whole lot of people to tag other people, which for me, (as you can tell by now) is annoying and is taking a liberty, first by posting the photo and then especially by tagging the person in it so that person can be searched for.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 9, 2011 at 6:53 p.m.

    What price is a life? When just one stalker found their victim...when just one nosey, idealogist HR person saw .... when there is a group searching for illegals ......

  5. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, June 9, 2011 at 8:26 p.m.

    Grant, I agree. The fundamental issues of importance here revolve around folks uploading photos that are images of others. Unfortunately, there is very little one can do to prevent another from doing that, particularly when the photos were taken in public places. And yes, automating tagging only makes what feels like a loss of control over one's identity even worse. However, I don't think that there are easy answers, nor do I think that it is a question of privacy. That image and that information were not private. They have just become more public. It is going to be a big issue for society to deal with and, as you and Paula point out, it brings with it a lot of heightened threats.

  6. Frank Boening from Certivox, June 21, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.

    Dave, I'd like to pick up on 2 of your central themes – both of which I agree with, that a photo taken in public is not private and that the web does not forget- and make the point that it is not just Facebook that proliferates our data: it is in the first instance us. The reference data submitted for comparison purposes is submitted by the individual themselves. We must make sure we all protect ourselves by securing the information we exchange every day. Seemingly trivial data can in total be put together as a puzzle about ourselves, pictures can be reverse engineered to reveal who they show. offers the ability to encrypt anything you post anywhere as well as encrypted email. Text on Facebook, LinkedIn, Hotmail or any site can be secured without passwords, tokens or any PKI hassle It also has a revoke feature, so that the internet CAN now forget. Photos, Video and any media will follow soon.
    If we are all concerned about our privacy, we should arm ourselves with the tools to protect us. PrivateSky by Certivox is military grade encryption for anyone for free. We believe everyone should have the right to protect their data and we have done our bit. It’s now up to the individual to use it….

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