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We Should Be Innovating With Privacy in Mind

08/07/2015 09:24 EDT | Updated 08/07/2016 05:59 EDT
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While citizens often complain about governments being slow to adopt technology and trends, it's important to give a tip of the hat when it's deserved as well. Here's some foresight from a government agency -- in Canada, no less.

In March 2013, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) noted concerns with the development of facial recognition technology, citing Facebook's potential power to harness information gathered through content sharing on its platform.

"Of significant privacy concern is the fact that Facebook has the ability to combine facial biometric data with extensive information about users, including biographic data, location data, and associations with 'friends,'" the report entitled Automated Facial Recognition in the Public and Private Sectors noted. "Faces have been transformed into electronic information that can be aggregated, analyzed and categorized in unprecedented ways. What makes facial image data so valuable, and so sensitive, is that it is a uniquely measurable characteristic of our body and a key to our identity."

Fast forward two years from this report to earlier this summer when Facebook launched its latest app, Moments, and gained a lot of attention from consumers and media. Many noted that several features of the new photo-syncing app were in fact not that new, that it was like other photo-syncing apps available on the market. What distinguishes Moments, however, are its capabilities supported by the power and reach of Facebook.

The most notable feature of Moments is that it can harness Facebook's facial recognition technology to identify people in a picture and then privately message app users who are tagged. On the surface, this appears to be a smarter and streamlined way to share images.

But as others have noted, this raises several privacy flags and begs the question about who owns a face. This facial recognition enables Facebook to (potentially/likely) know who you were with and where you were, even if you weren't the main subject of a photo. Perhaps you were just walking in the background, perhaps you weren't supposed to be there, and perhaps you were with someone you weren't supposed to be with. Think of the potential fall out.

This ability to recognize and identify people leads to a slippery slope. Those who have tested and used the app note that privacy is apparently a paramount feature of Moments. However, I have not been able to try it out myself because it's not available in Canada. Nor is it available in Europe due to similar concerns that the technology doesn't meet privacy regulations.

It will be very interesting to follow Moments over the next several months to see if consumers adopt this app. Will it mean that it's a useful tool? Will it mean any privacy concerns from individuals are met? Or does it mean consumers use it without actually understanding the potential privacy consequences related to it? Moments may very well become available in Canada, but it's important to have this dialogue about power utilization and the consequences of such tools.

It's a very fine balance and one that we encounter daily in the digital world. Consumers want streamlined and intuitive products, but sometimes that comes at the cost of giving up some privacy -- a la geo-aware ads for instant deals. Businesses and developers want to create apps that will be used by many, which leads to monetization via fees, advertising and leveraging of data collected -- think Facebook, again. And government agencies want to protect the public and foster a business-friendly environment -- which aren't always the same thing.

It's encouraging that the OPC is constantly looking to the digital world to ensure privacy is respected. For example, a recent report outlined that while the agency found many examples of good privacy practices related to online behavioural advertising, "the industry still has some work to do." Research like this is necessary for the dialogue to continue in this fluid situation. It encourages those in our industry to find the most effective way to help our clients reach their target audiences, while at the same time, respecting the privacy of individuals since we are consumers as well.

As our industry continues to innovate, we must remember that privacy, knowledge and awareness are paramount. All parties must have that foresight moving forward.

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