By Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.

If privacy officers succeeded in compelling every corporation and government around the world to implement the most stringent privacy controls, would the privacy of the world be intact? The advent of photo tagging suggests this answer is No--and the trend raises fundamental questions about the future role of the corporate privacy officer.

According to ZDNet, people worldwide took 50 billion digital photos in 2007, roughly 8 for every person alive.  The vast majority of these photos are e-mailed to family or friends, or uploaded to Web sites where only friends and family are given access. MySpace reports that its 110 million users have uploaded 1.5 billion images to their sites. Facebook says its 90 million users add 14 million photos to the platform each day.  Within these areas of life, people's privacy is at peace, because they are in control of their information.

The rise of photo tagging--the appending of personal information to digital images--is quickly changing the balance of privacy, however. The most common and benign way that photo tagging occurs is when people voluntarily tag photos of themselves. After I posted my portrait to my Facebook profile, for example, that image now displays whenever someone searches Facebook for my name.

More than just a name can be tagged on digital photos. Some digital cameras now come with GPS accessories that add geocode coordinates to photos. The metadata associated with these exchangeable-image file (exif) files stay attached to the image when it gets uploaded to a Web site. Sony, for example, sells a GPS Tracker Device that adds location data to photos and videos, and then plots them onto a Google map matching the longitude and latitude coordinates of the exif file.

This otherwise harmless and delightful innovation starts to open new privacy horizons when photo tagging becomes "social tagging." Social tagging occurs when you append your own tag to someone else's picture. If I uploaded a photo to my account on Yahoo!-owned Flickr--where more than two billion photos are now stored, and five million added each day--I could add to the photo a tag that says "Jeff Johnson" and "Wild Party" and make it publicly available. Jeff wouldn't know I tagged him in the photo unless someone told him, and would have no easy way of removing his photo.

Automatic social tagging has upped the privacy ante. Based on technology first developed at Stanford by Professors Jia Li and James Wang, autotagging happens when software automatically appends tags to photos based on the geocode metadata or facial-image coordinates. As people upload images to alipr.com, the professors' longtime project, its backend engine uses a library of English words to guess which tags should apply to the photos. As this project matures, it promises to broaden and accelerate the number of tagged images in its archives.

Others are already pointing their autotag guns outward toward the 85 billion Web pages  on the Internet. The banner on PolarRose.com leaves no doubt about its goals: "35,329,716 photos discovered, 219,076 people named." In addition to user-uploaded images, the Swedish Web site searches the Web for photos, matches faces with previously indexed images, and tags the new images.  

The end result of these isolated ventures is an emerging confluence of Web sites and technologies that is larger than the sum of its parts. In the not-too-distant future, these initiatives could produce the geocoded history of photos of you, of people who look like you, and of people erroneously tagged as you, for anyone who searches Google with your name and "image" as keywords. And, since no one corporation or government agency controls the entire playing field, there are at this point few avenues of recourse for people whose privacy has been forever exposed by this phenomenon.

How will people react to an escalating likelihood of being autotagged?  Some, including the Web 2.0 generation that never had high expectations of privacy, may change nothing about how they live. Others who are more cautious will withdraw from digital-photo sharing and try to avoid being photographed.

But many who occupy the middle tier of society--the "privacy pragmatists" who Dr. Alan Westin says will make case-by-case decisions about their privacy--may increasingly patronize companies who make it easy for them to navigate the trade-offs between privacy and convenience.

If Web 2.0 starts to routinely expose and harm innocent bystanders, corporate privacy officers will encounter a new opportunity to redefine their roles. Today, many organizations view their CPOs as internally focused--the people who keep the organization out of the headlines by keeping them in compliance with the necessary policies and regulations.

But for companies whose revenues depend on public trust in the online world, the CPO may need to become more externally focused. Tomorrow's CPO may need to help protect the online ecosystem and assist with products and services that guide consumers safely through it.

Look for additional ubiquitous identification series installments in future issues of Inside 1to1: Privacy.

You can reach Don Peppers and Martha Rogers at dpeppers@1to1.com or rogers@1to1.com


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Related Posts


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Advertise in IAPP Publications

Find out how to get your message in front the people you want to reach. Download a media kit now.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Registration Open

New! Intensive two-day GDPR training led by the sharpest minds in the field. It's a can't-miss event.

The Congress Is Cancelled

The IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress 2015 is cancelled. Click through to learn more.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»