Remember that time you went to Vegas, drank a little too much, and your friends got carried away with the Polaroid camera? Ten years ago, what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas. These days, that’s rarely the case. Thanks to ever-present smartphones, or the latest mass privacy breach, a crazy night out with friends can quickly fall into the wrong hands and go viral on the darker parts of the web – and once it’s out there, it’s out there.
We’ve entered a new era, in which countless future politicians and executives will be haunted by their past to a point that would make Nixon blush. Think about it: every photo upload shared by friends, every Facebook post or
comment – heck, every social media post – everyone is creating a complex digital footprint, with each action on the web.
And – in too many cases – guess what’s in each of those social media posts?
The hard truth
Facial recognition technology has a vast range of applications, and many of them are being used for incredible purposes, like reuniting owners with their dogs, or creating a touch-free smartphone for individuals with physical disabilities. On the other side of the coin, you’ve got job recruiters augmenting background checks with facial recognition technology – and that’s where those party photos are going to come back to haunt you.
No matter how you cut it, we live in a world where an image can change everything in an instant. Back in November, you probably saw the hashtag #AlexFromTarget trending. Long story short, a normal teenage boy became a viral sensation literally overnight, when hundreds of thousands of “fans” tracked down his Twitter account and phone number, simply because a photo snapped of him at work went viral, when he was deemed hot by the female teen masses.
Now, Alex has thousands of followers, many of whom are hanging on his every word. By all accounts (including an appearance on the Ellen show), he seems like a model child, but that’s a massive responsibility to be thrust into so quickly. Thing is, that’s an example of a case where everything went pretty well (you know, apart from the insane death threatsthe poor kid’s girlfriend received).
More recently, there was a video that went viral, depicting a bunch of guys picking up a clearly inebriated girl. The outcry was swift and fierce, but there was just one catch: the men in that video were paid actors, but they weren’t told what the video was really being used for.
“I certainly did take in a lot of dirty looks from people that see me every day,” said one of the duped actors, in an interview after the video’s origins were exposed.
Even though the video was fake, and the media outlets that originally shared the video have tried to clear the air, it’s not the best thing to have attached to your image – and it’s even worse when it’s real.
Take one of the Tinder fail lists which BuzzFeed routinely assembles, for example. In this list alone, the 18 men featured have unwittingly stamped their first name and face on some pretty offensive words, which have now been viewed more than two million times by people across the globe. Good luck on that next job interview…
While it’s not necessarily a bad thing that poor social behavior is now awarding a primetime spot in the viral hot seat, it’s also only funny until it happens to you.
So what can you do?
“Just make the right choices” isn’t going to cut it. We all make mistakes. Other times, we do nothing wrong and our face still ends up plastered all over the web in a way we didn’t want, or weren’t expecting; Jennifer Lawrence can attest to that.
The next step, then, is guarding our image by being aware of its presence on the web, and reviewing our own privacy practices.
Whether you’re a parent concerned about the misuse of your child’s photos on the web, or a job seeker concerned about your own image, being proactive about the whereabouts and usage of your image on the Internet is becoming paramount. When you know where your image is in use, and once you’ve taken steps to enhance the privacy of your photos, you’ll be better equipped to respond when (and if) the unexpected or unfortunate befalls your image, online.
Ian Koskela is the creator of Face Guardian, a service developed to help individuals monitor the usage of their image online. Read more about image protection and privacy at the Face Guardian blog, or get in touch with Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org.