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Peering Into Image Search's Darkroom

While the first draft of this week’s doom and gloom column was much longer than the published version, the first couple paragraphs set it up well enough that I don’t need to repeat it. It continues in the extended entry, and you can always find it at MediaPost as well. Your comments are always welcome. Thanks go to Mike Eisenstein for recommending Snow Crash (cited below) — hardly one of the better books I’ve read (on top of other issues I had with it, I especially couldn’t stand the whole hacker-as-demigod theme), but ripe for literary allusions.

Peering into Image Search’s Darkroom
By David Berkowitz

Sometimes you get a better sense of the meaning of a picture by
looking at its negative. That’s precisely the case with image and video
search.

  Last week’s column
hailed the technological advances of Facebook, Riya, and PodZinger. The
end glossed over the social implications, yet those issues matter much
more than the technology.

The overarching issue, the one that’s most likely to keep me up at
night, is, “Do we have to entirely relinquish our right to privacy?” If
the answer is yes, then it simplifies the issue. We press forward with
every technological innovation, privacy be damned. We accept that
everything we say can be recorded, and it’s not just to improve
customer service. We look back on movies like “Enemy of the State” and
think, “They didn’t go far enough.” We reminisce about the past when
the biggest concerns were of the government spying on us, as now all
spying on each other. The futuristic novel Snow Crash
comes to mind, where the character Hiro Protagonist joins the
“gargoyles” that wear cameras and record everything for the Feds. In
real life, 15 years after the book’s debut, the gargoyles are real, but
the videos are going to YouTube and Yahoo Video, not the FBI.

While improvements with search technology always come with privacy
concerns when it comes to text search, these concerns are often easier
to stomach. We take a bit more caution in the e-mails we send or the
comments we post, and for the most part, we’re safe.

Images are different, though. Gartner predicts digital still camera
household penetration in the United States will reach 80% in 2010.
Gartner also predicts that globally, 81% of mobile phone sales will be
camera phones three years down the road. Everywhere, people are taking
pictures. As search engines get better at recognizing the faces in
those pictures, people will have less control over their online
presence. As of now, it’s still fun, as the novelty hasn’t worn off. At
MyHeritage.com,
you can upload a photo of yourself and see which celebrities you
resemble (a photo of me without my glasses looks 74% like David
Arquette ; with glasses, I look most like Laura Dern). When image
search gets so good that it can find my face in a crowd shot, that’s
when I start worrying.

There needs to be much more concern over the explicit permissions
given. Right now there’s a sense of fearlessness about publicizing
information; a quick perusal of profiles on any social network will
attest to that. I’ve seen sides of friends, coworkers, and even family
members online that give me pause and make me want to reconsider
admitting to know them. And this is what they post voluntarily.

It makes me start to wonder about the presidential elections in
2020 and beyond. By then, students of the Facebook generation will be
old enough to assume the highest office, and not too long after, there
will be a serious contender, a Barack Obama or a John Edwards of that
era, who exudes youth while offering just enough experience to be taken
seriously by the electorate. The media and the public will search for
his or her Facebook profile, whatever trace of it is available then,
and of course scrutinize it to no end. The candidate who will fare best
will surely be the one who knows how to respond to past violations of
his privacy, not the one who goes to extremes to keep everything
private.

We all have our “macaca” moments. Most of us will never run for
office, but we will find spouses and significant others, raise kids, go
on job interviews, and just go on living. Every day, we’ll have moments
we hope aren’t caught on film, and we’ll see our kids both
involuntarily and voluntarily give up any semblance of a private life.

I’d like to hope there’s a better option, a virtual opt-in database
of every Web page, picture, video, and imaginable form of content where
we can choose what we want to be spidered and indexed, and what we want
to keep out of sight. But I’m not convinced that’s a viable option.

Assuming such a database doesn’t materialize, our next best
alternative is to behave in such a way that if our words or actions are
recorded, we’ll have nothing to be ashamed of, should they turn up in a
search engine.

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