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The constellation of our data and why we need to see the full picture

(Image credit: Image Credit: The Digital Artist / Pixabay)

When we think of personal data, a photograph is unlikely to come to mind. Typically, we think of our data blueprint as a series of numbers that makes up key personal information—such as our date of birth and our bank account details. For the more tech-savvy among us, this may also include a private key for the storage of cryptocurrencies. Place of birth, nationality, place of residence and employment status are other key signifiers.

And it is these sources of information that are usually stolen by identity fraudsters to commit crimes such as credit card fraud. Cybercriminals also harvest such data sources for sale on the dark web. But a photograph can contain essential components of personal data, too. A facial image in itself can be regarded as a form of personal data, while key data is also implicit in the location and time of when a photograph is taken.

A picture contains more than a thousand words

A more holistic approach is needed in how we address issues relating to personal information and privacy, and that shouldn’t ignore the many photos that document our lives.

In the past, a family photo was taken exclusively for the inner circle of family and close friends. Now, a family snapshot posted on Instagram can go viral in minutes, and be viewed by thousands of people who will never meet those in the picture. We live in a world where more than 1 trillion digital photos are created each year, with 2 billion pictures shared every day.  A photo says a thousand words, and given the implicit data held within this morass of imagery, this adds up to a huge amount of data.

Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future everyone would have a moment to shine in the light. Warhol’s words, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” appeared in the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Warhol’s vision could be said to anticipate our current social media age.

Are memes just for lols and likes?

The #10YearChallenge, a viral internet craze that involved posting a picture of yourself from 2009 next to a picture of yourself in 2019, put the data issues latent within photographs into the spotlight. Kate O’Neill, a tech journalist, speculated on Twitter that the data within the photos of those participating in the challenge could be deployed in facial recognition algorithms to make them better at predicting age progression. Facebook has vehemently denied any part in what it describes as a “user-generated meme”. “Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook. Facebook gains nothing from this meme,” stated a Facebook spokesperson. Still, the possibility of photo data mining struck a chord in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Mass awareness of Cambridge Analytica and its harvesting of personal data of millions of Facebook user profiles without their consent, has resulted in a fundamental change in how people view their personal privacy. The fact that the data provided by a social network user innocently clicking a like button can be used perniciously as information for a political cause is unsettling to say the least.

In this context, and in a world where we can manipulate images in real time, is the idea that commercial use can be extracted from time-stamped photos really such a farfetched a concept?

Protecting privacy in a social world

The rapid ascent of social media to become a ubiquitous part of our lives has arguably outpaced, and breached, the privacy rights of many individuals. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which gives users greater control over the information that online companies collect about them, is an important legislative milestone to advance data privacy in the current digital age. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has called for similar legislation in the US. Cook has given warning of “a data industrial complex”, where consumer data profiles are “carefully assembled, synthesized, traded, and sold”.

While technological advances have undoubtedly put our privacy at risk, the growing interest among citizens in taking back control of the photos that are published online, and on social media websites and platforms, is creating a revolution.  Large tech companies, social platforms and photo libraries will all be accountable for failure to protect citizens image data, just as banks and finical institutions have borne to brunt of data breaches and data leakage. 

It is up to these organisations to use technology for the better and protect the data hidden in the images of their consumers, such as the right to revoke access to pictures whenever they choose, with a click of a button.

Blinded by the big lights of data 

Many people have been blinded by just how much detail from their everyday lives now lie in the crosshairs of surveillance tools and big corporations. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of how major corporations such as Facebook and Google are using personal data to create profiles that commoditise individuals as consumer objects. But the issue of data protection shouldn’t be confined to one singular type of data. There needs to be an open conversation about how we protect the digital ecosystem across the board, and data issues surrounding photography represent an important fault line that shouldn’t be ignored.

Pat Krupa, Founder and Head of UX, SmartFrame Technologies (opens in new tab)

Pat Krupa is the Founder and Head of UX at SmartFrame Technologies.