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So many Big Brothers V

Part of the Exif data associated to a photo taken a smartphone. In yellow the data of longitude and latitude of the point from where the photo was taken. Image credit: Stack Overflow


I was born in the age of film rolls. There were rolls with film for 12, 20 and 36 shots and before shooting a shot you always asked: “will it be worth it? Should I wait for a better opportunity?” The peak of film photography was in 2001 with some 86 billion photos taken. At that time it was easy to know how many shots were taken, you just had to look at how many rolls were sold (not a perfect measure, of course, but reasonably accurate). Each of those 86 billion photos had information embedded in the image but, usually, that information was for people who already knew about that image (i.e you had to be familiar with that place or those people in the picture).

Today there is no easy way to guess how many photos are taken but, on the other hand, we can derive plenty of information from a photo.

The estimate is for 1.4 trillion photos taken in 2020 (that is over 16 times as many as in 2001) but this is just a wild guessing.  It means about 200 photos taken by every person on planet Earth. Not all people will actually take photos but there are plenty that will take many more than 200 (I am one of those, roughly taking some 5,000 photos per year). And these are just the photos taken by “people”. Then there are plenty of photos taken by safety cameras. by drones… Their number is mind-boggling. For some statistics look here.
Most importantly, each of these photos comes with plenty of data attached. Those are contained in the so called Exif (Exchangeable Image File Format) File. An Exif is a set of metadata about that photo, created by the camera (the phone) you used to take the picture. The Exif standard defines hundreds of metadata tags including:

  • the name of the photographer (usually the name of the owner of the camera)
  • the date and time the shot was taken
  • the model of camera used
  • the type of lens
  • the shooting parameters -shutter time, aperture, compensation,…
  • the GPS coordinates
  • the magnetic heading (in which direction you pointed the camera…)
  • and many more!

The actual set of metadata depends on the camera and in part of what you want to be recorded (most of the time people ignore the existence of the Exif file and the camera associates a default set of parameters).

The interesting point is that these data are associated to the photo and when you send the photo to a friend attaching it to an email these data will be passed along. Once your friend will look at the photo, with an application like iPhoto (Apple) or GooglePhoto it will be possible to see on a map where that photo was taken. More sophisticated applications will be able to use the shooting parameters and the type of lens to calculate how far from the camera are the various objects contained in the photo. Other applications will be able to match the face of people in the photo with known faces and tag them (give them a name). Other applications will be able to discover photos taken in the same location and place then in a time order.

Ten years ago an article on Traveller reported the story of a person who saw a nice girl taking a photo in the San Francisco’s  Golden Gate Park. Once the girl moved on he went to the same spot where the girl took the shot and took another shot. After a week he searched for the photo on Flickr and Tumbler  and asked to see photos taken in that spot about the same time he took the photo and he got promptly displayed the photos taken by that girl, along with other phots she took. In just a few more key-strokes he was able to discover the name of the girl, where she lived, where she studied, her hobbies.. And that was back in 2009, and the photo was taken with an iPhone 3. Just imagine in 10 years how many more data are being attached to a photo!

That is the power of Exif file.

Now, when you send a photo via Whatsapp, or paste it on Facebook… these services will strip the Exif file from the photo so that other people wont be able to read those data. However, these service providers will keep for themselves those data, making it possible to enable queries on photos shot in a specific place at a specific time… All nice features that show how much data I am, possibly unknowingly, handing over to these parties.

The possibility to recognise faces is a short step away from attaching an identity, a name to those faces. And at the same time they have the information on where you were at a specific time, with whom. A biit of data analytics, a sprinkle of mood detection capabilities and the amount of information on our personal life that can emerge from our photos become staggering in quantity, quality and depth..

Face recognition is already used by police in several countries to search for suspects whilst artificial intelligence is applied to detect suspicious behaviour…  Specific applications are capturing biometric characteristics of our faces and can use this biometrics to detect our presence in other photos on the web.  I can already (and I guess you tried it too) look for myself on Google and I get plenty of pointers as well as pictures. I can also search the web (still using Google) using one of my photos to retrieve other photos very similar to that one. In the near future I will be able to search for my presence in photos on the web using as search query my face. I can already do this on my photo library using iPhoto, soon I will be able to do the same on the WWW.

I let to you imagine the side effects (some pretty nasty) that may follow from these possibilities…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.