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One step away from lost privacy?

Cafe Couple (cc) by iFovea on Flickr

Imagine you’re out in town one day. You feel free and anonymous, so when the opportunity arises and you have an illicit cigarette, pop into a sex shop or have coffee with an ex, you assume no-one will know. But with technology that already exists today, this basic right to keep your actions secret could be gone. Here’s how it will happen:

While you’re doing that thing you’d rather keep secret, a bunch of kids nearby snap photos of each other on their iPhones. You’re in the background of one of their shots. When they upload it, Facebook scans the faces in the photo and automatically identifies you, based on photos you’re already tagged in. The photo is then published to your wall; it is broadcasted to your entire social network. Your “secret” is now plain to see. Your Mum sees you smoking, your girlfriend sees you outside the sex shop, your husband sees you dining with your ex.

If this sounds far-fetched, think again. The pieces are already in place. Import a photo into iPhoto and it will make a good guess about who’s in the photo. Facebook already broadcasts any photo in which you’re tagged to your News Feed. Facebook recently added automatic face detection, making it easier to tag you.

Face detection is just the first step towards face recognition, and it’s likely that Facebook will add that soon – they already have a vast corpus of facially-tagged images of their users. At first, they’ll only tag you in photos from your friends (which you’re likely to know about). The only thing that then prevents random strangers’ photos from reaching your wall is Mark Zuckerberg’s unpredictable whim.

We’ve given Facebook permission to broadcast photos to all of our friends, without asking us, at any time. We have no control over the process. Are you ready to gamble your personal privacy on the chance that no-one will photograph you, and that Facebook will put your best interests first?

Perhaps privacy was just a temporary aberration. The global village is getting smaller every day. In a world of Wikileaks and Google vans, maybe there are no secrets anymore.

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Related reading: The science-fiction novel The Light of Other Days, by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke, provides an excellent exploration of a future without privacy.

Image credit: iFovia on Flickr (Creative Commons)

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