What’s the Harm in Oversharing? I’ll Tell You

April Fools! Yesterday’s post was less a joke and more a sociology experiment of sorts, an informal survey of opinions regarding online privacy and identity ownership. These two relatively new issues are both intertwined and evolving at the speed of the Internet.  Surprise Surprise prompted many well thought out opinions, but also illuminated that many people haven’t considered the technological and futuristic consequences related to digital property oversharing.

My occupation as a search engine entrepreneur and web developer requires me to understand existing and emerging Internet technologies, as well as attempt to see into the future more than most people. As a result, I view one’s digital property as that: personal property. My position is that we all have the right to share as much about ourselves as we wish. I also believe that we do not have the right to share information about others without their permission, as a matter of respect and future-proofing another person’s privacy and identity ownership aka personal property.

Many may ask, “what’s the harm?”

A personal story: we have identical twin daughters. The day Facebook unleashed automatic photo tagging via facial recognition, it mis-tagged the girls as each other in many pics.  Yes, that’s right.  Facebook’s auto-tagging “saw” their faces in Facebook accounts and guessed correctly and incorrectly who that person was, and auto-applied a name meta-tag to that image.  First, the technologist in me was fascinated. Then the humanist in me was horrified. What could possibly go wrong? This isn’t even a case of sharing someone else’s digital property, but the Internet doesn’t know the difference and either will an admissions officer or hiring manager down the road.

Facebook, et al., are not private scrapbooks. When we post content we may be sharing with a much broader audience than anyone would guess, including acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, strangers, apps, data collectors and search engines. This is almost a guarantee due to pernicious and ever-changing privacy settings. Curious, why the outrage over the NSA collecting data on us when we voluntarily provide so much to the Internet at large, including, ironically, the NSA?

It is one thing to give away information about ourselves. Call me a libertarian, but it’s a different thing to give away information, without consent, about someone else. This is where the problem with photos comes in and the reason for my hypothetical scenario in yesterday’s post.  Once a picture is loaded onto a vast social network, control of that picture is surrendered. Sure, you might be able to have it removed if you see it in time, but is it really ever gone?  And if it isn’t, who has seen it, scraped it, stored it, replicated it, for some future big-data cross-corelations?

Imagine tomorrow you awoke and found that your mother or father had posted the entirety of your childhood photo album, from the first ultrasound to your awkward teen years. How would you feel? Would you be overjoyed that all your childhood pictures were now online so that hundreds or thousands of copies could be made and stored by friends, acquaintances, strangers, and autonomous data scrapers, which are also auto-tagging with facial recognition software? Or would you feel this a violation of your privacy and your identity rights?

Think on that.

The child gets no say in their online legacy. Our children are now on a path into the unknown, where they will have hundreds if not thousands of pictures “out there” by the time the get a say in the game. Facial recognition is fast enabling corporations, governments, and even crafty privateers to compile an Orwellian amount of data from these photos floating in cyberspace. We will be able to reconstruct an entire pictorial timeline of strangers very soon, from information volunteered rather than taken by force.

Please consider the consequences next time you upload a picture of a human other than yourself. That person may thank you later for respecting their future online privacy and digital identity.