Anonymous Picture to Social Security Number

Teaching children how to safely share online is difficult.  Whenever I develop a definitive list of dos and don’ts, a new technology appears changing the way information can be discovered and combined.

Recently, Facebook introduced the ability to tag multiple photos of friends using facial recognition software. In my blog post on “ask before you post or tag“, I brought up how this new technology could allow pictures to be searchable.  Now a team from Carnegie Melon used these tagged photos as the link between a photo taken on the street and an individuals personal information.

These researchers used just three common technologies: an off-the-shelf face recognizer, cloud computing and publicly available information.  The team took pictures of people off the street. Using a face recognition software, they identified people by searching through tagged photos on social networks sites such as Facebook and Linked In.  After identifying the person, the researchers were able to search publicly available databases to gather additional, and more sensitive, information. In some cases, the team predicted Social Security numbers.

As technologies improve, the separation between our online and offline identities will continue to crumble.  As one of the researchers, Alessandro Acquisti, stated, “when we share tagged photos of ourselves online, it becomes possible for others to link our face to our names in situations where we would normally expect anonymity.” In the future, an app may appear allowing anyone to take your picture with a phone and use this technology to identify you.

This study raises many privacy concerns.  As it becomes easier to search data and tie it all together, our kids may not be able to maintain a private offline identity.  Pictures taken in public settings could be used as a link to discover additional data .   Knowing that data can be linked through photos, should kids be discouraged from tagging photos of themselves or friends?