Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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