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

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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