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

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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

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Face.com

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."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/when-your-data-becomes-more-useful-than-you-want-it-to-be/258930/