Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World Wide Web

online-surveillance

(Photo: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

Do You Own Your Identity Online?

• April 04, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

The European “right to be forgotten” could help protect U.S. citizens against blanket data surveillance.

Facebook announced late last month that it had made a leap forward in its ability to identify faces in the photos published on its platform. Their software could match the same face in two different pictures with an accuracy of 97.25 percent, “closely approaching human-level performance,” according to the company’s report. The human rate of accuracy when identifying faces is 97.53 percent, just a few tenths better than Facebook’s algorithm.

This means that if the social network’s database has your face connected to your name—and, with more than 1.3 billion users and over 250 billion photos as of last year, it likely does—it can scan friends’ photos and tag you. On the surface, the system is routine and convenient: No longer do users have to manually input names when uploading a new photo. But does it strike anyone as strange that Facebook is trumpeting its ability to dissect your photos, as if a security guard is carefully scanning each party pic you post for readable data?

In the Internet era, our personal identities are fractured into many parts. We can be identified by our social media accounts or our phone calls and Web browsing histories, as Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks underlined. And then there are the less mutable aspects of our identities: We can be tracked by the appearance of our faces, as on Facebook. As technology improves, we should be thinking about how surveillance can be applied to these latter qualities as well as the former.

Perhaps our primary concern should not be the collection of data, but how and why it is accessed and how long it survives.

As mundane as that assertion sounds, surveillance of physical data is becoming increasingly important, and not just for providing CSI plot points. Our data—whether physical or virtual, or physical and virtual—identifies us as individuals and is inextricable from our daily lives. Yet even in this time of mass surveillance, the legal structures around how we control our identities are more vague than ever.

The NSA’s own surveillance programs do have certain legal checks in place to protect those whose data it collects. The problem is, those confidential boundaries have never been examined under public scrutiny.

With surveillance programs like PRISM, the agency doesn’t need warrants to collect the data (including browsing history and phone call metadata) of U.S. citizens because it’s too difficult, it was determined, to gather massive amounts of information while filtering out targets from a specific region. Leaked documents (via ProPublica) call this the “limitations on NSA’s ability to filter communications.” If the data the NSA gathers turns out to be from a domestic U.S. citizen and doesn’t contain relevant information, it must be destroyed “at the earliest practicable point in the processing cycle,” though the domestic communications can still be retained for up to five years.

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled such mass collections unconstitutional, but the U.S. laws governing data collection and surveillance have been loosening over the past decade, as this timeline clearly shows. A legal initiative in Europe, however, would have slowed the PRISM program down and given individuals more control over their data.

The “right to oblivion” (le droit à l’oubli) or “right to be forgotten” is a privacy measure put in place by the European Commission that allows Internet users to choose which of their data survives online. It has been defined as “the right of any individual to see himself or herself represented in a way that is not inconsistent with his/her current personal and social identity.” The law asserts an individual’s right to their online persona: If you tell Facebook to remove certain unflattering photos that you uploaded, the company is legally obligated to delete them.

In Italy, the first landmark right-to-oblivion ruling in 2012 established a precedent to an individual’s right over online information. A well-known figure who had been arrested for a crime sued a major newspaper to take down stories that failed to report their eventual acquittal. After an appeal, the court found that the newspaper had to “devise a suitable method to provide … an update to the original news,” according to Lexology.

Other cases underline the difficulty of managing online information. A Spanish camping company sued Google Spain because the search engine displayed gruesome images from a gas explosion that had occurred near the campground (the company was not at fault). The company argued that the images were damaging their business, but the case was dismissed on the grounds that as a subsidiary, Google Spain wasn’t liable to be sued. Google faces other cases from individuals requesting the removal of personal data, which is more specifically targeted by the law, rather than business information.

The right-to-oblivion law has been accused of overreach by the Stanford Law Review. It encourages micro-management of online identity and allows abusers of the law to forcibly remove any information they might find simply embarrassing or unflattering from the Internet, as opposed to information that represents an actual overreach by journalists, businesses, or the government. Yet in the context of the NSA, this kind of law could enforce the ephemerality of sensitive data used in identity surveillance and allow individuals to manage the persistence of personal information.

Perhaps our primary concern should not be the collection of data, but how and why it is accessed and how long it survives. The NSA documents show an enforceable length of time that collected information can be held (whether that is followed or not is another question), but private companies and other areas of the government lack the same strict guidelines. Future regulation must cover both the kinds of data that can be gathered and if they can be stored.

The issue of data collection is particularly relevant in the case of Facebook. When the website suggests that you be tagged in a photo, what it actually does is compare a pre-created quantified dataset of your face to the newly uploaded image and measures how closely you match the identifiable subjects. Facebook keeps individual face templates in its databases to use over and over again.

Yet that template, if requisitioned by a group like the NSA, can be used in other contexts to identify an individual; in security camera footage, for example. Though it offers its users a chance to opt-out, Facebook is creating a database of identifiable faces en masse, and is already using them to improve its identification technology.

There is no legal ruling about the protection of face identification in the U.S., but there are other cases that could provide recourse if Facebook’s data were to be unreasonably used to identify a criminal by face recognition, for example. What most closely resembles mass face-data gathering are DNA dragnets, the widespread collection of DNA data to solve crimes like rape. Often, police will collect DNA samples from an entire population—the town the crime took place in, for example. But are they allowed to keep the samples to compare against in future cases?

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling found that DNA evidence can legally be collected from someone who has been arrested in connection with a serious crime, suggesting that even those mistakenly arrested or who are not ultimately found guilty are liable to be entered into a DNA database. Other cases reinforce the ephemerality of passively collected identity data.

In 1995, Michigan resident Blair Shelton was pressured into giving a genetic sample in connection with a rape case. When the testing freed him of suspicion, Shelton successfully sued to have his DNA information destroyed. The Michigan Supreme Court finally ruled, “state law says that police cannot keep DNA records of innocent people.” That edict should also apply to digital records.

How data is kept is just as important, if not more, than how it’s collected—a lesson we can take from these examples and apply to blanket NSA identity surveillance. While opting-out is currently an option on Facebook, it’s certainly not for government agencies.

The utopian promise of the Internet is that it’s a free hub for information, where the more data you give away the more benefit you receive in the form of discounts, targeted ads, or community membership. But rather than giving away information wantonly and waiting for legal structures to come into place, the question in the coming years should be how can we can control our identities more, not less. Laws like the right to be forgotten should provide tools to assert this control.

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.

More From Kyle Chayka

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.