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The video sharing giant, YouTube has introduced a long needed feature to protect peoples anonymity – the ability to blur peoples faces. For many years activists and protestors living in police states and under dictators have used social media sites to inform the world of events in their countries. Often with communications locked down and extensive surveillance in place these sites are the only ways that people can communicate with the outside world. Unfortunately in countries like Syria, Iran and many of the ex-Russian states the authorities use these videos for their own security requirements.
Just think about it – these protest videos will commonly involve activists speaking out against regimes, close pictures and video streams of protests – all identifying leading activists and protesters. All the regimes have to do is identify them and go and pick them up. They also use them for real time security operations, videos are often uploaded live during meetings and protests. Security services can use them to quickly identify locations and send people in to disrupt or arrest individuals involved.
There are no specific figures on how many people have been arrested across the world because of these videos, but it is certainly in the thousands judging on the number of stories that circulate. Giving users the ability to quickly blur faces and other recognisable features in a video will go a long way to protecting the safety of activists in countries like Iran. It of course doesn’t offer the true panacea of online anonymity that sites like this aspire to – http://www.onlineanonymity.org/ but it offers an important level of protection. It also raises awareness of the dangers that posting these videos online can cause. Many videos are uploaded by bystanders or angry young people who perhaps don’t consider the consequences of identifying activists on the front line.
There are other issues with uploading and identifying individuals online, there are definitely other dangers too. Many people fail to consider that their IP address is logged, by many different servers while they are online. Records exists in ISPs and on the web servers you connect to. The only way to protect this is to obscure your real IP address and encrypt your connection. Ironically although not advocated as a security precaution – this video about watching the BBC outside the UK http://www.iplayerabroad.com/, demonstrates one method of uploading videos anonymously.
The technology is not quite perfect and we are unsure behind the effectiveness of the algorithm that detects and blurs the faces. This is not a selective technology either at the moment with YouTube only offering the facility to blur all faces (not select which to blur and which to leave). Whatever it’s initial shortcomings though, it’s certainly an important step in offering some level of privacy online and hopefully we’ll see similar measures being implemented at other video and photo sharing sites shortly.