‘Tag’ Isn’t a Game Anymore to These Folks

Tagging Has Come a Long Way

It used to be so simple, “Tag, you’re it.” Run around a little more and tag the next boy or girl. But to paraphrase from “The Wizard of Oz,” Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not just playing tag anymore.

The “tag” feature on Facebook has always had its detractors, some of my friends among them. The basic idea that someone else decides which picture of you gets seen before an abundance of people is probably a flawed one at best. It’s one thing if you’re a newsmaker or playing competitive sports—but just eating at a picnic or sitting at the pool? Yes, I know, you do have the final right of refusal, but it still seems to irk people.

Germany has become a hotbed for disputes between American technology companies and European privacy regulators, “over the privacy ramifications raised by social networking, online mapping and location services tied to mobile advertising.” The New York Times reported last week that a German regulator has asked Facebook “to disable its new photo-tagging software, saying he was concerned that its facial recognition feature amounted to the unauthorized collection of data on individuals.”

The question is, does tagging violate a user’s privacy? Facebook argues that the final right of acceptance conforms with European law. But the dispute is part of the larger issue of privacy. We now kind of accept—at least here in the U.S.—red-light cameras and speed-enforcement cameras because at least you have to be doing something wrong to get caught. (Though the latter especially conjures up bad feelings.) But Google had to apologize and pay fines last year after it was found that their “roving Street View mapping vehicles were also collecting private data from unencrypted Wi-Fi routers.”

So it’s definitely a slippery slope. Apple also had to defend itself in Germany “after a computer expert revealed that the iPhone was compiling logs of user locations,” the Times reported. Apple eventually agreed to change the design of the feature to meet German privacy concerns. And also in Germany, Facebook was forced to change its Friends Finder application to give people more control over their own data. Apparently, Facebook now has about 75 billion photos worldwide; a representative for the company said that the data is not stored permanently. How long then? Couldn’t say.

So what is the bigger picture here? There’s no doubt that the more information we can find out about potential customers, the better our chances are to meet their needs. I’m amazed at the amount of information people put on their own Facebook pages—photos galore, school information, events attended, family data. As I’ve discussed in previous columns, the percentage of employers that Googles their job candidates has to be growing each day. Facebook wants us to involve our friends, bring new people in, get everyone “talking.” But as we’re seeing, certain people do get very upset if their privacy is violated.

An Agence France-Presse article back in June quoted Gerard Lommel, director of Luxembourg’s data protection agency, as asking: “Where are the limits and how do we apply regulations on data protection so as to be sure that these tools do not work on a universal basis? We realize we will have to treat this quickly, in a more detailed way…” The system “leaves people like me—who are responsible for monitoring the protection of personal data—pretty much perplexed.”

Interestingly, the article went on to say that Facebook tagging is “currently done more than 100 million times a day.” And that many large media companies “are also looking at facial recognition software in a bid to squeeze out more revenue from valuable image banks.”

I guess the more people photos a media company can have, the more it can sell. But this slippery slope has the potential to turn into an ice trail. Stay tuned.

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