YouTube Now Lets You Blur Faces in Videos. Will It Help Keep Human Rights Activists Safe?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 18 2012 12:46 PM

YouTube Now Lets You Blur Faces in Videos. Will It Help Keep Human Rights Activists Safe?

113276254
Still from a 2011 YouTube video shows anti-government protesters in Syria.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

Today, YouTube announced that it has added a new tool: the ability to blur human faces in uploaded videos. “Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your 8-year-old’s basketball game without broadcasting the children’s faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube,” says the YouTube blog.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

YouTube has been something of a virtual battle zone for Syrian activists. The video sharing site has helped bring international attention to their plight, but it has also left them vulnerable to identification and allowed for some sneak attacks from Syrian authorities and loyalists. In March, for instance, malware was spread via a faux YouTube site that appeared to feature opposition videos.

Advertisement

If there is a downside here, it’s that the tool may give activists a false sense of security. Even if someone’s face is blurred, for instance, authorities may be able to identify them using clues—what clothes they’re wearing, their height, where the video was shot. (Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian C. York wrote for Al Jazeera English’s website about the danger of activists incorrectly assuming that their social media information is secure.) The announcement emphasizes that the face-blurring tool is in its early stages and thus might not be perfect. If you look at the preview and don’t think that the faces are distorted enough, YouTube warns, don’t publish the video.

Another potential problem could come from criminals who idiotically but helpfully post videos of their acts online—like when groups beat a bystander while someone else films it. But it seems likely that YouTube would be able to provide law enforcement with the original footage.  

Update, July 18, 4 p.m.: YouTube's Jessica Mason wrote in to clarify whether original versions of blurred videos could be used by law enforcement:

With this tool we are giving users the option to delete the original "unblurred" version. In the case that they choose to delete it, the video would be permanently gone from our serves and we would be unable to hand it over. This was designed with the security of activists in mind. We also take down videos that do not comply with our Community Guidelines.
In the case that a user did not delete the video and the government of one of the countries where we are launched had a valid court oder or subpoena, as a law-abiding company we would have to comply.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.