YouTube Announces Easy Face-Blurring Tool to Protect Anonymity of Video Subjects

Google's video site responds to a report from human-rights group WITNESS that criticized tech companies for not doing enough to allow protesters to mask their identities.

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Reuters

In recent years, viral videos -- particularly those of police brutality -- have been hailed for their ability to inspire mass protests. But activists have grown concerned that the documentary power of the Internet is a double-edged sword. The results of all this footage may not be just inspiration and communication, but repression, as states turn to the videos to identify and track protesters. As a result, fear of appearing in videos or photos of a protest may keep people out of the streets.

As the pseudonymous Rafeeq, a video-journalist and resident of Homs, wrote for Al Jazeera:

Many of my friends were arrested for protesting. However they weren't arrested from the protest sites, but rather from the checkpoints spread across the city.

But how did Assad forces know they protested?

Government forces have special teams dedicated to monitoring protests that we film and upload to the internet.

One of my friends who was detained for a short period told me that, as he was undergoing torture in detention, he was asked by the investigator if he ever participated in rallies against the regime. When my friend denied protesting, the investigator showed him footage where his face clearly appeared in a protest.

This is when we started learning how to film rallies from angles that would clearly show the crackdown by Assad forces on protests but not the faces of those protesting.

Concerned by incidents like these, the human-rights group WITNESS released a report last year calling on the big tech companies (naming specifically Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter, and Nokia) to "step up their efforts in changing privacy controls, allowing for anonymity and developing user and content policies that better serve human rights defenders." They specifically noted that "No video-sharing site or hardware manufacturer currently offers users the option to blur faces or protect identity."

Today YouTube (part of Google) has responded to that need and announced an easy, in-site face-blurring tool. They explain on the You Tube blog:

Blurring faces on YouTube is simple. Once you've chosen the video that you'd like to edit within our Video Enhancements tool, go to Additional Features and click the "Apply" button below Blur All Faces. Before you publish, you will see a preview of what your video will look like with faces blurred. When you save the changes to your video, a new copy is created with the blurred faces. You will then be given the option to delete the original video.

This is emerging technology, which means it sometimes has difficulty detecting faces depending on the angle, lighting, obstructions and video quality. It's possible that certain faces or frames will not be blurred. If you are not satisfied with the accuracy of the blurring as you see it in the preview, you may wish to keep your video private.

A screenshot shows how the interface will appear:

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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