This past week, Facebook announced via prominent banners in the network’s iOS and Android apps its new “Photo Syncing” service. Photo Syncing automatically uploads every photo taken on one’s mobile device to a private album on the user’s homepage, enabling easy and direct publishing of photos. This streamlines the photo sharing process — forget the messy workflow of importing photos to one’s computer, selecting which to upload, and exporting the photos to Facebook’s servers. Now one can simply forget about the implicit handshake that grants Facebook access to the wealth of data contained within one’s photo collection. Out of sight, and out of mind.
Of course, like with any major change to the site, Facebook’s intentions are far from being purely for its users’ benefit. With an image comes metadata, containing information on when the photo was taken and, in the case of many smartphones, where it was taken. Geolocation data can be used in conjunction with timestamps to give Facebook a unique and privileged window into one’s life — where and when you visited towns, businesses, restaurants… the works.
Not only is metadata transferred, but many, many photos are handed over to Facebook’s computers, which can then analyze them using face-recognition technology. This ability is so potent and expansive that countries such as Ireland and Germany have complained bitterly (resulting in the disabling of the feature for new users within the EU). Now advertisers can have access to data on who was with you on your vacation to the Bahamas last summer, or who went with you to Six Flags last weekend, or even who you’re standing next to at the moment (if you just took a photo). A family member or friend not on Facebook can have an ever-expanding database on them compiled without their consent, tied to a scarily accurate tag of their face. Not only that, but (as this TechCrunch article notes) recognition software can be applied to other items than faces, such as the text on one’s shirt, or the brand of shoes one is wearing.
It’s a privacy nightmare. And watch out! There’s no consent required before your phone sends your photos to Facebook… so, inevitably, the site will receive some photos that violate its terms of service (think: not-so-classy shots meant for a single person’s eyes only), in addition to photos one might wish weren’t preserved for eternity on the Internet (think: drunk pics). As we know, the Internet doesn’t forget or forgive.
Thankfully, one must opt in to Photo Syncing. But with a big green “Get Started” button at the top of the news feed, Facebook makes it all too easy for users to kickstart the process without realizing what they’re getting into. There are other reasons one may want to stay away from Photo Syncing: keeping photo clutter (i.e. fifth, sixth, seventh takes of group shots) limited to one’s phone, and off the web, is a novel idea. Also, continuous photo uploading drains phone batteries. And, of course, the more Facebook is a party to one’s digital life, the less intrinsic control over content one has.
It can be easy to say yes to a change that provides small advances in ease of use, but stay clear of this one. The sacrifices that Photo Syncing forces users to submit to in privacy and data ownership aren’t worth it.