When Your Data Becomes More Useful Than You Want It to Be


Our brains can't forecast what the technologies of tomorrow will do with the information we are uploading today.



Here's a problem with uploading your life into the cloud: you're sending it Internetward with an understanding of today's technologies -- and tomorrow always comes.

So, you upload photos to Facebook thinking about how easy it is for your friends and family to see them. You are not thinking about people a year or two years down the line being able to search through every photo you've ever uploaded by face, not name.

Yet that's the future that we're steadily marching towards. Last week, Facebook acquired the facial-recognition software company Face.com. Of course, Facebook had already been working with the company, and a Face.com app had long been available. But the acquisition signals a deeper integration between a facial-recognition technology company and social network with the largest repository of photos of people in the world.

This is just another step to a world in which digital content of all types -- not just text -- is searchable. Take a look at where Google has been moving YouTube, steadily increasing the ability to auto-caption videos uploaded to the site. How long will it be before we hear about Google or another large video repository acquiring a transcription service like dotSUB? How long after that will Google, Facebook, or Microsoft acquire Betaface, a "facial recognition-based media indexing platform for searching and monetizing multimedia content" or eyealike, which bills itself as at "the forefront of visual-based search"?

These are 'when' questions, not 'if' questions. The technologies are improving and companies that have the incentive to deploy them will use them. That's the logic of an advertising-based, user-generated web. The playing field must be tilted towards accessibility, which is to say reach, and that means making as much as possible searchable either within a walled garden (Facebook) or on the open web (Google).

There is so much latent information in what we've uploaded or said on social networks. The technologies are under development to unlock it, but our brains can't forecast what that will mean for our privacy.

I'm reminded of the one-liner that Alexia Tsotsis (who is Internet famous for something else today) delivered a couple years ago:

"We'd have lived our lives differently if we had known they would one day be searchable."

Or maybe I'd rephrase it: "We won't live our lives different if they will only will be searchable some day."

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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