Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is there any point to preventing your child from being digitally recognised?

In Slate, Amy Webb proudly describes the fact that they have kept all pictures and information about their daughter offline. The reason is: option value. They want their daughter to choose her online identity.
She’ll have the opportunity to start cashing in parts of her digital identity, and we’ll ensure that she’s making informed decisions about what’s appropriate to reveal about herself, and to whom.
This is in contrast to a friend of theirs who posted all manner of pictures of their daughter online thereby "essentially robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition."

As regular readers know, this is an issue I have long been concerned about. Unlike many other parent bloggers, I have not posted recognisable pictures of my children to this blog and not used their names. I had the same idea as Webb that I would give them options to control their identity. I also thought this blog would be so famous that I needed, prior to my inevitable fame, to protect the kids. It is safe to say that the dire consequences of fame have not been forthcoming but at least I planned for it.

What is interesting to me is apparently how useless that has been. Child No.1 has pictures that identify her all over the place, mainly on Facebook. Now those aren't visible publicly (apart from a grainy profile image) and the only other ones that are clear were posted by her school. Google Images reveals that those ones contain her but you would have to work out who she was from a crowd. And what is the best way to do that? You look at which of those kids look the most like me. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Child No.2 only appears in a cartoon created form which only looks like him to people who know him. But the clearest picture of them all is of Child No.3. A single Google Image that we have no idea how it got there. But it is her and it comes up with a search for her name.  

Webb talks about being able to choose the age that her child is old enough to choose her online identity. But what age is that? Child No.1 has done that by age 12. We try to educate her on such matters but when you see what her friends are doing, it is hard to image that anyone knows what the consequences of these things are to make an informed decision. Giving her the option of control is all well and good but you can't imagine that there is a magic day whereby you relinquish parental responsibility. 

Moreover, the horrors Webb describes of facial recognition seem strange.
That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions. 
There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact.

But baby pictures are hardly going to matter there. You need to recognise the child as an adult and, moreover, the consequences of those pictures (like getting into college) are surely not going to be harm because of poor parental judgment. In the meantime, Webb cowers in secrecy and prevents any interaction with a broader social community on parental sharing. Facebook provides that opportunity and, as far as I can tell, there is little leakage from that interaction.

In any case, the protection from facial recognition is hopelessly naive. Skynet won't need pictures of her daughter if they have pictures of Webb. That should do the trick. So the cat is out of the bag.

What we are left with is common sense. You post pictures and try to keep them secure. You teach your children about what these things mean. And then you watch as they take the most ridiculous photos of themselves and post them to SnapChat so that their friends can view them for 10 seconds before they are automatically deleted. And you realise that the kids themselves have some ideas about how to manage this one.