Talking to a friend some years ago we compared the barriers to entry to our chosen professions. As a financier he started with the baseline that his career required higher education and a good grade in economics from a good university, which comes at a ever increasing cost. He then pointed at someone using an iPhone which, as he argued, came with a ‘free’ camera. And while education is becoming more expensive, camera phones are becoming increasingly better and do not cost the same as a university degree.
And yes, whilst I love photography and think it’s great it’s achievable for all with a phone, I do also lament my livelihood can be usurped by anyone claiming to be a ‘photographer’ because of the device in their pocket. On a recent job reference shots were being taken with an iPhone where brightly lit objects were appearing in perfect exposure with objects in shadow. The person couldn’t comprehend why my professional gear couldn’t do the same and I could see them question why I was needed and the quality of my product.
In addition to a low cost of entry it was argued that the value of a digital photograph was zero. Nil. Nada. This was based on the fact that duplication of a digital image cost nothing save ‘right click, copy’. Compare this to a print which requires ink and paper and the argument holds (some degree of) water. However it came to my attention recently that this argument has it’s flaws. That is to say don’t necessarily look at the cost of duplication, but rather consider the information and data a digital image holds. With the recent disclosure of how Facebook monetises data I think it’s important to look at what exactly what we, as users, are giving Facebook when we upload images. And be aware, Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, so data abuse includes all the images on Instagram (more thoughts on Instagram here).
For years I was aware that certain servers, such as Facebook and Google, stripped a photograph’s metadata when uploaded. This is naturally concerning to me as a photographer as it is the metadata that confirms my ownership to my work. I work hard to ensure all my images have the correct metadata, tags, geotags and keywords to ensure attribution. This means people can find me if they like my work enough to want to commission me and should the need arise, it is the metadata which would prove the image was mine. If that information is stripped, those servers are potentially orphaning my work which denies me potential future work and also opens up my work to be (ab)used by others. To add insult to injury Facebook adds it’s own data to an image, once stripped of the original metadata, to track it if used away from the platform; ie the social media platform strips proof of my ownership and then collects it’s own data from it.
So it’s alarming to learn what actually Facebook and social media actually do with my metadata. Like with all data, they hoover 100% of it up. They look at everything I’ve just mentioned and more. If the image was taken on a phone, they look at service provider, battery levels, cell phone towers the phone has pinged; all of it. They look at who and what you tag in the image and if there are strangers in the image, they’ll use at facial recognition to identify them and cross reference with other images uploaded by others from the same event or location to further build intelligence from the image. So not only is Facebook tracking the movements you voluntarily offer it, the platform also tracks your private movements if you’re the stranger in the background of someone else’s photo. Which brings me to ‘shadow profiles’; profiles on people, non users, who haven’t agreed to any T&Cs. These profiles are garnered from data offered to the platforms by other people; from access to address books, to facial recognition, to being tagged. All this data is then used by social media to micro target advertising and for them to make money from the information you’re handing over.
I return to the premise that the value of a digital image was worthless due to the ease and zero cost of duplication. Yes, duplication continues to be (relatively) free and easy. However valuing a digital image using this metric is overly simplistic and ignores the value of your data. And when viewed in these terms, suddenly the value of an image becomes more than the the cost of the takeaway you’re about to order. If the benefits of using such a system outweigh the negatives, you’re lucky. If you’re making money from it, you’re one of the few. Indeed the purpose of gathering all this data and analysing it to produce intelligence is to help build ever more accurate advertising to monetise from; ie your ‘free’ data earns money for others. And do you really trust a system that recently moved as much data as possible to the USA to circumvent EU data protection laws, where the CEO only weeks before testified to Congress that he would abide by ‘the spirit’ of such laws?
Even if you did opt out, you can’t opt out completely because there will still be reams of data on you the platforms you don’t legally own. If a government tried to do anything similar, there would be uproar as there’s a word for this; spying. It’s not fiction. Big Brother is here, he really is watching you and there’s no escape.