Following on from Libby’s post in which she cites Tim Cook’s speech on privacy, it seems that whilst Internet users are being advised to take more and more care of what they share online, at the same time companies are thinking up new and intrusive innovative ways in which to use the data we hand over to them.

Case in point: Facebook has recently announced that it is now able to identify people in images, even when their face is covered.

Their research claims that they can do this to within an 83% accuracy level, by identifying aspects of people’s other physical characteristics, such as the way they stand or pose, even from the back, which is pretty impressive/scary.

It seems that more and more companies are using this technology; as part of Flickr’s redesign, they introduced auto-tagging capabilities using computer auto-recognition, however, it wasn’t without it’s rage-inducing flaws. Although some degree of error is to be expected, of course, hopefully Facebook has taken steps to ensure that its errors won’t incur the wrath of the Internet.

The social network has developed the feature to help enhance the user experience, it says, by automatically grouping photos according to subject matter and adding tags to make search easier. It can also notify you when someone posts a photo of you, even if your face is hidden, so you can ‘keep track of where your pictures are being published’.

However, it’s easy to see how this sort of technology enters all sorts of grey areas when it comes to privacy. Companies other than Facebook can use this information to identify that you like wearing a certain brand of clothing, for example, and use that data to target their advertising. Equally, real-life retailers can use the technology to scan you and access your identity and the associated information in order to send you individually-targeted offers when you walk in to one of their stores. Perhaps the most unethical example I have read is that even churches are using it to identify and target regulars for donation requests. Further issue is that these churches, along with who-knows-how-many other companies, are collecting these images and using the technology to track people without consent.

There have been lots of examples of companies surveilling people without their knowledge, and it rarely goes down well when they get found out. For example numerous cases of phone hacking, the GCHQ surveillance case, and many, many more. A simple search on Google for ‘surveillance ethics’ brings up scholarly and educational (University) sources on the issue – showing that clearly this is a very important, and murky, water to tread.

If a bit tenuous, there’s an important lesson here for marketers; although gathering customer information is integral to forming successful strategic plans (both on- and off-line), you must ensure that you go about it in a way which is transparent, and ethical. Collecting data through trickery, or without consent will mean that at best the nature of messages will go unnoticed, at worst you will lose loyal customers for abusing their privacy, as well as potentially facing legal ramifications.

Whilst Facebook’s new feature brings up a myriad of privacy issues, I personally feel resigned to the fact that more and more of our information will be gathered online by companies – and as long as we’re choosing to be involved with social media we are powerless to stop it. How do you feel about being ‘recognised’ on Facebook? Is this a step too far?