Invading Our Own Privacy

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Discover on 2 September 2006

Even the most staunch online-privacy advocate would have to admit that is pretty cool. On the surface, it’s just a photo-sharing Web site like Flickr or Webshots, where users upload pictures so that others can see their latest. But take a closer look at Riya and you’ll notice a unique feature: Users can actually teach the Web site to recognize the faces in their photos and display the names of the people those faces belong to. puts fairly high-level face-recognition algorithms in the hands of the average Internet user. Tag enough pictures of yourself or a loved one and the site can then identify those faces when they show up in photos anyone else puts online. Just roll your cursor over a face and Riya will tell you who it is.

How does it know? Riya’s software takes a bunch of measurements of your face, hairline, and the distance between your eyes, accounts for the angle and the light source, and then manages to come up with a unique profile. It’s not magic—just a bit of geometry empowered by processors. Once Riya knows what you look like, you’ll be able to find yourself in photos uploaded by your friends or identify strangers in pictures of your own.

While Riya currently lets its users control who can view their uploaded photos, the company plans to make its software available for Internet-wide searching, potentially adding a whole new dimension to browsing the Internet. Is that carpet for sale on eBay worth the money? Let Riya search for identical rug patterns in online shops on the Internet. That blonde you snapped with your camera phone last night? Riya can check to see if her photo is on a dating Web site and tell you who she is. Uses, and potential abuses, seem endless.

Tempted? Spooked? Nothing gets media-philes more intrigued—and incensed—than the proliferation of software that seems to know who, where, or what we are. We live in a world where every swipe of a credit card tells someone, somewhere, more than we might want them to know. But until now, the information trails we left behind had always seemed more incidental than intentional. The willingness of people to volunteer images of themselves for the purpose of having them analyzed by software that can then pick them out of a crowd may expose a different trend altogether: enthusiastic participation in Big Brotherism as a form of entertainment.

Launched just this past March, is a privately owned start-up. But the site’s users uploaded over 7 million of their photos in the first seven weeks. Internet behemoth had similarly humble beginnings. But as Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace proves, there is a commercial value in collecting and sifting through all that information we share about ourselves online.

What is so hard to reconcile, though, in an era when the Bush administration must answer for every phone log it scans in search of possible “terror” links, is why so many people volunteer their personal information to an even wider audience. How can we be creeped out by the increasing invasiveness of security cameras or the collection of market research on every family member yet simultaneously be drawn to any opportunity to share the most intimate facts about ourselves with the world at large? Wherever there’s a seeming paradox in media culture, there’s usually a larger, if unspoken, issue being played out. Indeed, there’s more going on here than government paranoia, market forces, or even a cultural inclination for exhibitionism. Were we observing a species other than ourselves, it would probably become immediately apparent just how much time and energy those creatures are dedicating to the sole purpose of being able to know what all the other ones are thinking or doing at any moment in time.

It’s as if we humans are not simply wiring up a communications infrastructure but creating a shared platform for self-awareness as a collective organism. And this goal—this almost instinctive push toward gaining access to one another—far outweighs our concern over how this data might be used. The priorities of the incipient group “metabeing” may already be running the show. In fact, decades or perhaps centuries from now, we may come to a very different understanding of what was going on in the early 21st century, when the parallel developments of surveillance, recognition, and search technologies seemed motivated by such topical concerns as marketing, terrorism, and fetish. Only then, on the other side of this engineered evolutionary leap, will we be in a position to understand what this globally networked game of show-and-tell was really all about.