Are Filters on Social Media Being Used to Collect your Identity?

Augmented facial filters took Snapchat by storm in 2015, the newly launched feature was (and still is) used by a massive amount of users on the app daily. The filters allow users to change their appearance by adding things like cute dog ears or fake cartoon-like freckles to their cheeks. This all sounds cute and innocent but is there a darker problem lurking behind these filters? The idea that the multibillion-dollar social giant has used filters to collect and sell user data to the Government for facial recognition could be somewhat of a conspiracy theory, but there’s no fire without smoke, right?

Usually, identity databases are collated by gathering images from the likes of public surveillance footage, images from news articles and mugshots, just to name a few. In addition to this, image sharing sites like Facebook are scraped to pull images uploaded by users on the platform. Global companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon announced they are working to create facial recognition programs, ultimately aiming to develop these technologies. However, this has raised some concerns amongst tech experts and lawmakers who feel this technology is moving rapidly and beginning to spiral out of control. There are worries as to how this data could possibly be stored and used in future when in the hands of individual governments and private companies.

We’ve already seen the likes of Facebook caught out after breaching its data-sharing policies, with Mark Zuckerberg testifying exactly how the company protect and use data gathered from its members. This came after millions of users’ data was sold to Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge, never mind their consent. This is bad enough, but facial tracking tools? That’s a different can of worms altogether.

Screenshot from Twitter


The idea of Snapchat using filters to track users’ faces and store their information kicked off a debate on Twitter after a well-known US rapper B.o.B. sent a simple Tweet explaining his theory about filters on the app claiming they are used to build a facial recognition database. The Tweet sparked contradicting views from users on Twitter with some claiming it’s definitely possible and others completely disregarding the statement.

Although Snapchat collecting users’ data from filters to sell to the Government might sound a little farfetched, we learned from the likes of ‘Steller Wind’ that this might indeed not seem like an over-exaggerated conspiracy theory. For those who aren’t aware of what the ‘Stellar Wind’ US Government project is, let me fill you in. An NSA whistleblower came out to announce that a program designed to spy on the Soviet Union was turned into a domestic program. After 9/11, it was claimed that the US Government conducted data collection on every single US citizen to track their life without a warrant.

Privacy of users’ data has been a concern for years. FaceApp, an app developed in Russia, took social media by storm in 2017 accessing over 150 million faces and names including celebrities. The app was updated with an old age filter that worked to create a hyper-realistic impression of how users could perhaps look when old age hits.  Ultimately, this is just another AI face filtering app, however, there were some controversies around how the app gathered and stored users’ data. Some developers suggested that images edited in the app were being stored without user permission, not only this but claims of the app having access to user’s entire camera roll. FaceApp issued a statement addressing concerns around their privacy policy specifying that they “might store” images users have chosen to upload through the app for a short space of time to monitor “performance and traffic”. The app also states it deletes most, but not all, images stored within 48 hours after being uploaded. What happens to the ones that aren’t deleted? That’s the question that needs to be answered.

Face tracking technology has received praise from the US police as it has helped them identify criminals, which is of course great! However, the algorithm of this technology has also lead to people being wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit. Looking back at filters, on both Snapchat and Instagram, many people of different races and ethnic backgrounds had issues using filters as the tracking hasn’t picked up on facial features meaning they don’t work. This ultimately affects the facial tracking used in facial recognition, meaning people’s identity is being mistaken due to an issue with the algorithm. A recent court hearing saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the representative for New York, stating “These technologies are almost automating injustices” when pointing out how error rates for facial recognition are often highest for non-caucasians ultimately leading to a higher rate of false accusations of crime. This suggests that our data is being stored when using facial filters on various technological apps and social media platforms due to the consistency in errors within the algorithm.

Apps and filters used over various social media channels have proven to have the potential to store our data and use this to harvest facial recognition databases. We have seen our privacy, not only online but also in day to day life, being corrupted and stored by private companies and governments. With giant companies like Facebook and Amazon working to perfect a facial recognition technology, the idea of our faces being stored in a database feels like it has the potential to be true. With AI rapidly progressing, we can only hope that users’ privacy policies and the laws surrounding data possession grow just as quickly.

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