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Cyber Culture: YouTube lets its users get caught by the fuzz


We've all been caught unawares in the digital crosshair. It's one of the unfortunate side effects of leaving the house these days; as more people become faintly obsessed with documenting what's going on around them, we stand a good chance of achieving social media immortality against our will. Every week I receive notifications that I appear in some photo on Facebook – and every week I'll untag myself, unless I'm looking particularly handsome, which is rare and getting rarer.

This debate simmers endlessly; how much care should we take over accidentally compromising the privacy of others, and how much right do people have to be angry when they see themselves captured in tweets, photographs or videos?

Privacy campaigners became flustered the other week when writer Janey Godley live-blogged a row going on between a man and a woman on a train and used sufficient detail for them both to be identifiable. It's telling that when I just googled "couple arguing on train" to check Godley's name, dozens of candid YouTube videos were returned featuring furious couples bickering on public transport. It's the kind of celebrity no one wants, that no one has asked for. Last week YouTube launched a feature that could spare the blushes of those couples. "Blur All Faces" does exactly what it says on the button; I tested it on one of my own woozy creations and there were suddenly jelly-like blobs on people's shoulders where their heads used to be.

The software isn't infallible; odd angles and poor lighting can confuse it. But it's being touted by YouTube as a boon for any activists who seek to expose injustice without putting individuals at risk, and is a direct response to last year's Cameras Everywhere report that demanded technology companies start to protect and empower these people.

Whether digital voyeurs on trains will also choose to use this tool remains to be seen, though. It would certainly lessen the viral impact of their cheeky surveillance.

The irony is that while YouTube introduces a facility to blur the faces of individuals, its owner, Google, has been working hard on implementing and improving facial recognition technology. It bought a big player in that field, Pitt Patt, about this time last year, and just before Christmas equipped Google+ with a "Find My Face" feature which alerts you whenever you appear in your friends' photos. Facebook has had a similar feature for quite a while, and its recent acquisition of face.com has given it access to tens of billions of photo tags.

Of course, these new features are presented to us in a very benign way: they're time-saving benefits that save us hassle. But actually, they're so hamstrung by privacy issues that they are – perhaps thankfully – fairly pointless. So even if you're not of a paranoid bent, you can't help wondering what the real benefit to these internet giants will ultimately be, now that they control a potentially powerful faceprint database.

A recent US Congressional hearing entitled "What facial recognition technology means for privacy and civil liberties" hauled Facebook's privacy manager, Rob Sherman, over the coals. He stressed, again, that these facial-recognition features only operate within one's circle of friends. But some envisage a time when facial recognition is used for targeted advertising; others note with a raised eyebrow that very similar technology was used to identify offenders in last summer's UK riots.

Should be we worried? I don't believe that we live in a digital surveillance state, but the ingredients for a frighteningly efficient one are being kept in cupboards that are disconcertingly adjacent.

Leaks, damned leaks: another nail in the coffin of pathetic passwords

The past month has seen a couple of high-profile password leaks from major web services, with 6.5m being swiped from LinkedIn and 400,000 finding their way out of Yahoo's clutches and on to the internet. It represents a pretty grim security failure – particularly in the case of Yahoo, where the passwords weren't even stored in an encrypted form.

True, in the vast majority of cases the information that would be available to hackers if they attempted to log in using your details would be mundane, uninteresting and, in the case of LinkedIn, slightly exaggerated to make yourself look more attractive to prospective employers. But the reason these leaks of email and password combinations are so dangerous is that we will insist on using the same passwords for every service.

How many times, for example, have you signed up to a new one using your email address and a password, where that same password could be used to access that email account? The value of these password breaches to criminals is directly proportional to our laziness and lack of ingenuity when it comes to creating passwords – and we're phenomenally lazy.

Meet Open Source Guy – possibly the world's worst superhero

The New Zealander and Berlin resident Sam Muirhead is embarking on a curious project next Wednesday, in which he aims to live an "open-source life" for precisely one year. With the underlying aim of raising awareness of the idea of open source outside the world of technology, Muirhead will be avoiding traditionally copyrighted products and embracing those whose methods of production are freely available to copy, adapt and share. In the case of computer software the options are obvious, and he'll be jettisoning his Mac for a Linux box for the duration. But, as he notes, things are less straightforward when it comes to, say, pyjamas, electricity or dentistry. As a resolution it's clearly doomed to fail, but as an endeavour that raises questions about our often feeble submission to the whims and legal muscle of large corporations, it's one that'll be fascinating to watch. Muirhead is raising funds for his project at indiegogo.com/yearofopensource – and if you're having trouble envisaging the kind of problems he'll be confronting, you can read a rather sweet letter he wrote to his mum which explains things perfectly.

The phone system that allows you a look in – just as long as you blink

There must be some benefit to facial recognition technology, surely? Ah, here were go – the latest Android operating system, 4.0, allows you to unlock your phone with a look, rather than an insecure passcode (see above) or swipe pattern.

Your phone can now tell if you're the one peering at it and grant you access accordingly, while anyone who fails to match your radiant beauty is kept firmly out. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it works pretty well, and it's been further improved by the Android 4.1 update, which checks for blinking eyes. (Apparently people could get past the lock by holding a photo of the owner up to the camera.)

An alternative biometric option is due to arrive on smartphones pretty soon in the shape of Dragon ID, made by the same company who produce the dictation app, Dragon Dictation.

It can detect vocal nuances in a range of languages including English, French, German, Chinese and Japanese; match the inflexions of the phone's owner and it's open sesame – a challenge to any budding impressionists if ever there was one.