"Why the Facezam hoax seemed all too real" by Hiawatha Bray Globe Staff March 15, 2017
The week started with some encouraging news: Facebook, in a victory for privacy advocates, said it will no longer allow police and intelligence agencies to randomly root around in its databases. But the next day I was distressed to hear about an app that would let anybody do much the same thing, using only an iPhone.
So said a company called Facezam, which on Tuesday claimed its eponymous product would let you identify strangers by shooting photos of their faces and then matching them against their Facebook profiles.
Within hours, the Facezam website admitted that the whole thing was a lie to generate a jolt of cheap publicity. But it was too late. The Telegraph, a respected British newspaper, wrote about the app, and word quickly raced around the world. I picked up on it too; I conducted an e-mail interview with the supposed founder of the fake company, and posted an earlier version of this column online early Wednesday.
I apologize to my readers for buying into the hoax. Then again, I had lots of company. Why? Partly because the underlying technology is as real as it gets. Facial recognition is commonplace in many desktop programs and Internet services, including Facebook itself. There’s also a company called Blippar, which makes a free app that can identify commonplace objects. Just point your smartphone camera at, say, a television, and Blippar will identify the device.
Maybe you are best staying in the shadows.
Last year, Blippar added a face recognition feature. I tested it on a picture of Matt Damon displayed on my computer screen. Up popped the actor’s name, his Wikipedia entry and a listing of his films. Blippar says it has a database of 70,000 famous faces, and will soon allow ordinary users to add their own faces to the mix.
Launch the Blippar app, point your phone at a stranger’s face, and there’s the story of his or her life. But only if the stranger has signed onto Blippar and provided a personal profile. Users will know from the start that their images might be used in this way.
Facezam also seemed plausible because Facebook and other Internet giants know nearly all there is to know about billions of us. We freely provide the information, even though we have little power we have over how it’s used.
They have a file on you.
Much of the information we give Facebook is available to all comers; it’s a social network, after all. You can look up information about one person at a time, or write software that plugs into Facebook and scoops up the data of thousands. That’s why companies love to advertise on Facebook; they know exactly who they’re talking to.
The police also like Facebook. They have hired companies that can track postings by suspected criminals or political activists, or follow message threads on controversial topics like the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s nonstop surveillance, without wasted shoe leather, or a warrant.
Now the police spies are being frozen out. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California reported that at least 20 of that state’s police departments were engaged in social media spying, without notice to the public or permission from elected officials. In response, Facebook and Twitter stopped providing data to one of the biggest tracking services used by authorities, Chicago-based Geofeedia. And on Monday, Facebook said it would no longer allow anyone to collect its data for use in surveillance.
But social networks, search services, and advertising companies will keep hoarding our data, and using it as they see fit. For now, our best defense against intrusive government agents or privacy-wrecking corporate abusers is the good intentions of Facebook chieftain Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow online titans.
That’s not good enough for several Illinois residents who are suing Facebook for doing the kind of thing that Facezam falsely claimed. When someone uploads a person’s photo to Facebook, the service often recognizes it and offers to “tag” it with the correct name. Most people love this feature. But the plaintiffs gripe that Facebook didn’t get written permission before putting their facial characteristics into a database. They say it’s illegal under a 2008 Illinois law aimed at protecting the privacy of biometric data, like fingerprints, voiceprints, or facial geometry. Similar laws have already prevented Facebook from offering this feature in Europe. If the lawsuit succeeds, the company might have to change its facial recognition policies in Illinois alone. That could get messy.
While my distaste for new federal regulations is nearly Trumpian, I make an exception for privacy. We need a comprehensive federal law, maybe similar to the Illinois law, to ensure that our facial data, like our fingerprints, belong to us. Such a law would require companies to clearly get our permission to use that information. That’s the best way to protect privacy-loving citizens, and gullible journalists, too.
It wouldn't be so bad had his ilk not brought us so many wars based on lies.
It's like Night of the Iguana.
"Hollywood puts its spin on censorship" by Hiawatha Bray Globe Staff March 23, 2017
You would think the First Amendment is a bulletproof defense against censorship of the Internet. But then you are not reckoning with the awesome political power of the Screen Actors Guild.
The union representing Hollywood stars and role players somehow persuaded California lawmakers to enact a law that would bar the popular IMDb website from revealing the ages of actors. It’s a law that sounds crazy even by California standards, yet Governor Jerry Brown signed it last fall.
You’ve probably heard of the entertainment-focused IMDb. Owned by Amazon.com, it was founded by a British computer programmer and movie buff in 1990, when the Internet was in diapers. Today, it’s among the world’s most popular websites, with over 250 million visitors every month.
The basic IMDb service is free. Its content, like that of Wikipedia, is crowdsourced. Members love to post information about their favorite movies, directors, stars, and — this is the important fact — the actors’ ages.
Many stars aren’t happy about that. It’s not just vanity, they say; Hollywood is rife with ageism, and older actors don’t want directors to think they’ve passed their sell-by dates.
You can’t ban the whole Internet from publishing someone’s age. Or can you? California legislators figured out a way. The IMDb law is merely the nuttiest recent effort by governments here and abroad to censor unwelcome Internet content. Other examples are less ridiculous but equally pernicious.
Some American lawmakers would be happy to comply. Last month, a couple of New York state legislators filed a bill that would require Internet search services to remove, on request, listings that hurt a person’s reputation, and which are “no longer material to current public debate or discourse.”
I’m sympathetic; we’ve all done things we’d like the world to forget. But it’s no different from trying to block the publication of Brad Pitt’s age. That’s not the government’s job.
Other ongoing disputes over online expression are more complex. Even now, European companies are pulling ads from Facebook and YouTube because users of those services sometimes post racist and anti-Semitic messages that are illegal overseas but protected here.
You can’t blame advertisers for fleeing such stuff, even where it’s legal to publish it. And Internet companies aren’t bound by the First Amendment. They have every right to bar materials that don’t meet their ethical standards, or those of their customers. Websites are also entitled to use their own judgment in flagging stories that might be considered “fake news”; I might disagree with their decisions, but I don’t see it as censorship.
But governments can’t ban the online publication of truth, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Somebody tell the Screen Actors Guild....
I really couldn't care less about what Hollywood has to say about anything these days. That's why I didn't bother with the Gas or Oscars.
Also see: How other countries are trying to censor the Internet
Now you don't?