This morning Slate published an interesting essay by Amy Webb, where she talks about how she and her husband have decided, since their young daughter's birth, to keep all traces of her off the internet.
I tend to be sympathetic to the writers of stories like this one, where someone's abstaining form one of the privacy intrusions that the rest of us have mostly decided to happily take for granted. "Why should it be normal to upload pictures of your kid to a website that'll scan those pictures in for their facial recognition service?"
But when Webb describes 'Kate,' the daughter of one of their friends, as a counter-example of exactly the kinds of privacy intrusions she's trying to shield her kid against, I wondered if those intrusions are really so bad as to be worth this much trouble.
With every status update, YouTube video, and birthday blog post, Kate’s parents are preventing her from any hope of future anonymity.
That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions.
The more realistically scary problem Webb points to is that these pictures could be used in a sort of Minority Report / Matrix future, where the kid's face is uploaded into facial recognition algorithms and they've lost their right to privacy before they hit puberty.
There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact. The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes Kate may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.
Dystopian as that all sounds, I think it's probably right. That said, I wonder how opt-outable any of this stuff is. It's hard to imagine a 13-year-old today who would willingly abstain from social media. And if they do, it's hard to imagine their class of fellow 13-year-olds agreeing not to post any photos of them across social media, as a way of respecting their peer's parents' wishes about the role of Big Data. Worst case scenario, I suppose you can always just have a funeral for your old identity.