Facebook wants your nudes

Privacy

We’ve all heard about cases when someone’s ex reveals their intimate photos online without their consent. Even celebrities are not immune, and their leaked images keep tabloids well fed.

For most users, the release of such private images — revenge porn — can feel like the end of the world, and in fact, a few resulting suicides have brought the issue very much into the mainstream news. It should go without saying that such leaks represent a huge privacy violation and have no place in a civilised society. However, leaks do happen.

That’s why Facebook came up with an interesting approach aiming to prevent intimate photos from being published without their subjects’ consent, at least on Facebook or Instagram, or over Facebook Messenger. The idea the social network came up with and is currently working on in collaboration with the Australian government is to suggest users send the photos they are concerned about to the company itself.

 

Wait … what?!

Yes, you got that right. Here are the details: Facebook’s plan is to encrypt private images using hashing, so that if someone sends or publishes that image through Facebook, Messenger, or Instagram, the service can detect the image by comparing its hash sum to those in Facebook’s database and interfere with its transmission.

Australia’s e-safety commissioner told ABC News how the scheme is supposed to work: Facebook will suggest that users send their intimate photos through Facebook Messenger — to themselves. The images, in being sent, will be hashed. Subsequently, if someone tries to upload an image that has the same hash value, it won’t be visible to anyone. Facebook claims that the end-to-end encryption used in Messenger (in the mobile app, not on desktops) ensures the photos will be secure, because it excludes intermediaries, and that the images themselves won’t be stored, making them immune to theft.

Will it really work?

Facebook has announced the pilot program in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada so far, so we don’t yet know how effective it will actually be. On the one hand, it has real potential as a solution to this privacy threat. On the other hand, questions remain about how we can be sure that it won’t become a way of encrypting someone else’s public photos. Because end-to-end encryption doesn’t allow Facebook to look at the photos, it won’t be able to use machine-learning algorithms to distinguish, for example, a nude photo from a non-nude one.

And moreover, a lot of people still have concerns about providing their photos to a third party, be it Facebook or any other company, and about the security of any technology they don’t know much about — especially in case of Facebook, where several users’ private photos have already been leaked.

Is there a better way? For most people, there is:

  1. Whether you take nude or otherwise potentially compromising pictures of yourself is none of our business. They are, however, a tempting target, and so well worth second thoughts. If the photos don’t exist, they can’t leak.
  2. If you do take pictures of that kind, store them offline, on an encrypted storage device.
  3. If you want to share something that can potentially be used to shame or otherwise harm you in the wrong hands — or hands that become wrong, say, after a breakup — be prepared; you may face difficult consequences. Once you’ve uploaded something, anything, to the Internet, it might become public, no matter how secure the online service. There’s also the human factor, and there is no such thing as an absolutely secure system.