The future your photos can’t predict
I don’t want to keep hitting out at Facebook, but BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski highlighted on Twitter
an ‘interesting’ patent application
from the company: “PREDICTING HOUSEHOLD DEMOGRAPHICS BASED ON IMAGE DATA.”
As the name suggests, this would be a system of improving ad targeting based on the people and objects in photos uploaded by a user. The usual disclaimer about patent applications is worth repeating here: this may never actually emerge as a product. However, it is a reminder of how much can be learned from the photos we shared online.
I’ve written in the past about how creepily good Google Photos’ automated photo slideshows can be. For example 'They Grow Up So Fast’ shows your children growing up over time. You don’t ask for it, Google just decides to send you it one day. But if Google used that same technology to target age-appropriate parenting ads at a user, that would be creepily bad to most people.
Sticking with Google, its face recognition is so good that it can track photos of me as a toddler to the present day without any prompting from me. It just knows that they’re all me, even though I’ve obviously changed a lot in the intervening years.
When my parents took those first shots of me as a young child, they couldn’t have guessed they might be used to track me through life or target ads to me in the future. Neither could I when my family scanned them into digital form about 10 years ago.
When we upload pictures of ourselves to online photo services, we have no idea how they might be used in the future. Laws like GDPR should help protect us from some abuses, but who can predict who might use photos of us in the future, and how they might get away with it?
You probably shouldn’t stop uploading photos to the internet, but be aware that they may be used in ways you don’t like – and can’t even imagine yet.