You might think you’re safe from tracking by the likes of Google and Facebook if you don’t have an account with these companies, but new advances in technology are making it impossible to escape their reach.
Let’s start by looking at new applications of old technology. Photos taken by most cameras (and phones) include Exif metadata. “Metadata,” or data about data, was a term coined in 1968. Exif was standardized in 1995. Exif files include the time and date the picture was taken. They may also include the photographer’s name, software used to edit the photo, and the model and settings of the camera. Most phones (and some cameras) will also record latitude, longitude, and altitude, taken from the device’s GPS.
I’m not opposed to phones and cameras logging to Exif data. It can be a useful tool when you’re learning to be a photographer. I’ve found pictures online of cities and national parks, wondered “Where is this?” and checked the coordinates stored in the metadata against Google Maps.
If you don’t want others to read it, Exif files are easy to edit or remove. Many sites, such as Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, and Imgur will automatically remove Exif data to protect their users’ privacy. The issue is that most people are unaware of Exif, and what sites do with the data before stripping it.
When you sign up for Facebook, LinkedIn, or many other sites, you will be asked to import your email address book and phone contacts. These sites use that information to find friends already using the service and spam the ones who don’t. In 2013, a Facebook bug exposed over six million “shadow profiles.” These profiles collected information on users who did not have Facebook profiles.
Facebook is also a pioneer in facial recognition. Machine learning algorithms are fed “tags” made by users, enabling them to automatically suggest who the people in a photograph are. Facebook users can also tag people without accounts.
The facial recognition software, combined with Exif data and shadow profiles, gives Facebook a tremendous amount of information about non-users, who likely are unaware this data is being collected.
A new paper published by Google researchers details a method of determining the locations in photographs, called PlaNet. PlaNet uses neural networks to cross-reference photographs with data from Street View to determine their location. Even without Exif data, Big Data can figure out where you are.
To tell the truth, I feel like giving up. I used to be worried about Google analyzing my email. Today, I still am registered for a Gmail account dating eight years back. To paraphrase Australian hacker Zoz, it doesn’t matter that I don’t use Gmail; my friends do, so Google reads my emails anyways. I have a Facebook account where I mostly just lurk; employers think you’re “weird” if you don’t have one, and I’ve got a few friends who won’t communicate any other way.
I’ve joked with friends about scrapping all my electronic possessions, dropping out of Stevens, and living in solitude deep in the wilderness or in a monastery. It seems like nowadays, that’s the only way to truly opt out.