Commentary

Peering Into Image Search's Darkroom

Sometimes you get a better sense of the meaning of a picture by looking at its negative. That's precisely the case with image and video search.

Last week's column hailed the technological advances of Facebook, Riya, and PodZinger. The end glossed over the social implications, yet those issues matter much more than the technology.

The overarching issue, the one that's most likely to keep me up at night, is, "Do we have to entirely relinquish our right to privacy?" If the answer is yes, then it simplifies the issue. We press forward with every technological innovation, privacy be damned. We accept that everything we say can be recorded, and it's not just to improve customer service. We look back on movies like "Enemy of the State" and think, "They didn't go far enough." We reminisce about the past when the biggest concerns were of the government spying on us, as now all spying on each other. The futuristic novel Snow Crash comes to mind, where the character Hiro Protagonist joins the "gargoyles" that wear cameras and record everything for the Feds. In real life, 15 years after the book's debut, the gargoyles are real, but the videos are going to YouTube and Yahoo Video, not the FBI.

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While improvements with search technology always come with privacy concerns when it comes to text search, these concerns are often easier to stomach. We take a bit more caution in the e-mails we send or the comments we post, and for the most part, we're safe.

Images are different, though. Gartner predicts digital still camera household penetration in the United States will reach 80% in 2010. Gartner also predicts that globally, 81% of mobile phone sales will be camera phones three years down the road. Everywhere, people are taking pictures. As search engines get better at recognizing the faces in those pictures, people will have less control over their online presence. As of now, it's still fun, as the novelty hasn't worn off. At MyHeritage.com, you can upload a photo of yourself and see which celebrities you resemble (a photo of me without my glasses looks 74% like David Arquette ; with glasses, I look most like Laura Dern). When image search gets so good that it can find my face in a crowd shot, that's when I start worrying. 

There needs to be much more concern over the explicit permissions given. Right now there's a sense of fearlessness about publicizing information; a quick perusal of profiles on any social network will attest to that. I've seen sides of friends, coworkers, and even family members online that give me pause and make me want to reconsider admitting to know them. And this is what they post voluntarily.

It makes me start to wonder about the presidential elections in 2020 and beyond. By then, students of the Facebook generation will be old enough to assume the highest office, and not too long after, there will be a serious contender, a Barack Obama or a John Edwards of that era, who exudes youth while offering just enough experience to be taken seriously by the electorate. The media and the public will search for his or her Facebook profile, whatever trace of it is available then, and of course scrutinize it to no end. The candidate who will fare best will surely be the one who knows how to respond to past violations of his privacy, not the one who goes to extremes to keep everything private.

We all have our "macaca" moments. Most of us will never run for office, but we will find spouses and significant others, raise kids, go on job interviews, and just go on living. Every day, we'll have moments we hope aren't caught on film, and we'll see our kids both involuntarily and voluntarily give up any semblance of a private life.

I'd like to hope there's a better option, a virtual opt-in database of every Web page, picture, video, and imaginable form of content where we can choose what we want to be spidered and indexed, and what we want to keep out of sight. But I'm not convinced that's a viable option.

Assuming such a database doesn't materialize, our next best alternative is to behave in such a way that if our words or actions are recorded, we'll have nothing to be ashamed of, should they turn up in a search engine.

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