Recently there was a brief wave of everyone using a new Google app feature that took your selfie and delivered what it felt was the closest result pulled from a collection of famous classical artwork. Everyone was having a bit of fun and it was kind of goofy.
I had zero interest in participating, just as has been the case with previous apps and features and games. The reason is more than that I’m a stick in the mud who hates fun. And it turns out I couldn’t even if I wanted to since the app isn’t available in Illinois due to state privacy laws.
Every one of these apps and features has a motive by the company producing it that has nothing to do with giving everyone a fun, silly game to play. They are 100% using the photos and data you willingly upload to improve their own facial recognition and other machine learning systems.
I’m not a paranoid conspiracy theorist by nature, but we already don’t know how many of these systems work. Ad retargeting is obvious, clearly using your browsing data to send you what are assumed to be relevant product pitches. More exists that we’re barely aware of. How did Facebook decide to recommend I connect with someone I don’t actually know but recognize as a customer at work? How did a retailer seem to know I’d been talking about – but not sharing publicly – buying something? What does the pharmacy down the street know about me based on a combination of RFID, in-store cameras and purchase history and what are they doing with all that?
There was a time when I think it could be assumed the Star Wars Name Generator asked you to enter your first name and the name of the street you grew up on was just goofy fun, a harmless distraction on the then-burgeoning internet. Now, though, it’s clear that data uber allies online and that it’s just a few big companies who are collecting and selling that data to anyone willing to cut a big enough check.
The entire system, when you look at it, seems to be built around data collection. Every post you send on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram comes with its own metadata attached regarding location, the device used and more. But what are those companies doing with the posts themselves? I don’t necessarily believe the story of Twitter employees reading people’s DMs, but I do think Snapchat is building a massive repository of photos that could potentially be used by a party with less than altruistic motives.
Think about how many selfies a teen Snapchat user posts, adding whatever kind of filter and animation is hip that week. Each one is surely filed away and could be used to refine facial-recognition software that could be used by 1) Physical retailers with cameras that recognize you when you enter a store and send you deals, 2) Government agencies to track your every movement via the ever-growing number of “traffic” and “crime prevention” cameras in cities around the country or 3) Literally anyone else.
I’m not saying every potential use of this data is guaranteed to be nefarious and that I’m going off-the-grid to escape the creeping hand of Big Brother. It’s just that the kind of “Let’s analyze your picture” activities creep me out. Think about the first question most of these apps ask: “Does this look right?” You’re not just answering, you’re teaching a machine what is and isn’t accurate. So what will it be able to do now that it’s incrementally smarter?
That’s what we don’t know.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.