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Socially Aware Blog The Law and Business of Social Media

Picture This: Online Photos and Big Data

Posted in Privacy

As the quality of visual recognition software continues to improve, privacy concerns have grown concomitantly. Because we now document our lives with so many pictures posted to social media—Facebook hosts over 250 billion photos, with 350 million new photos added every day—photographs are becoming hugely important to the big data movement. Indeed, some say Facebook stores over 4 percent of all the pictures ever taken in history. What truths may lurk behind all those images—and who wants to know?

Cutting-edge visual recognition software programs now make it possible not only to identify a person in a photo on Facebook or elsewhere, but also to determine what that person is doing in the photo.

There’s already image recognition software, used by the fashion industry, that lets a shopper take a picture on his or her smartphone of a piece of clothing and then match that piece by color, pattern, and shape to the offerings of 170 retailers that sell something similar. That’s a benign use of this technology. But more ominous applications are already emerging.

My sense is that this concern is helping to fuel the growth of ephemeral social media sites such as Snapchat, where—at least in theory—photos don’t sit there in perpetuity to be exploited by data miners; they last all of 10 seconds.

After all, imagine all your online photos being processed into a data profile by advertisers or law enforcement, showing where you live, where you’ve been, with whom you hang out and what activities you’ve participated in. If a single picture is worth a thousand words, what are 250 billion photos worth?