Facebook wants your nudes

“Send nudes” is getting a whole new meaning on Facebook.

The social media giant is launching a pilot project that encourages users to send their intimate photos to the company in an effort to prevent online revenge porn. To preemptively stop a potential nude leaker, users can give their photos to Facebook via messenger and tag the photo as a non-consensual file. Facebook will digitally track the photo with metadata technology to prevent others from uploading the image.

The pilot is currently being tested in Australia, partnered with the country’s Office of the eSafety Commissioner. Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom will be next to participate.

Users can upload their nude images to Facebook and flag them as ‘non-consensual’. (Photo by Natasha Hermann)

Not surprisingly, the prospect of sending nudes to Facebook is setting off alarm bells.

“If you do it, it’s your choice, but you have to face the possible consequences,” said Brianne Hughes, a first-year business management student. “They could leak all over the place. The cloud is always getting hacked. Celebrities nudes are always being published. You could start being blackmailed.”

Privacy and hackers are central concerns surrounding the pilot, but experts say that there is a greater risk of a third-party trying to trick users for images.

“My reaction is that other websites will mimic the Facebook interface or use a third-party application using a Facebook sign-on, and somehow convince users that their website is a way to deposit such images,” said Anatoliy Gruzd, a Ted Rogers School of Management professor and the Canada research chair in social media data stewardship.

While Facebook hasn’t disclosed the technical details of the pilot, Gruzd assumes that when an image is uploaded, the raw file is converted into a series of numbers – a hash function. This prevents the image from being stored in a database. You’re more likely to be hacked while the image is being transferred over a server on a wireless network. Whether or not the pilot can gain the trust of users to hand over their nudes, Gruzd said, is a whole other problem.

“From a technical perspective it may be a great idea, maybe an effective idea, but from a social side, from a user perspective, there’s lots of questions … will people be comfortable and trust the platform enough to contribute their compromising pictures to begin with?” he said.

There are few options to report or take down non-consensual images online. Some social media platforms, such as YouTube and Instagram, have report buttons that allow users to flag suspicious material to site administrators. Other websites and organizations, such as Without My Consent, can help you file copyright claims and track stolen images. Some believe that the Facebook pilot has the potential to improve reporting sexual harassment.

“I think it’s a step forward. There’s not much to stop that thing from happening,” said Steven Bossio, a fourth-year government and politics student. “If you’re in a desperate situation, I feel that it’s sort of necessary, but on the outside, it seems like a step too far.”

Lara Karaian, a socio-legal professor at Carleton University and a senior fellow for the Centre for Free Expression, said that maintaining full control over nudes is impossible, yet, the pilot will be restricted from protecting users from revenge porn.

“I think its potential is very limited. Facebook is one of thousands of sites where an image could get uploaded,” said Karaian. “It’s really great that Facebook doesn’t want to be part of non-consensual redistribution process, but it’s very limited in the overall help it could provide.”  

Nudes are often shared by text message or over social media. Karaian explains that when we send nudes using one of these platforms, we are sending them to people we trust, hoping that they can honour our sexual privacy. Yet, offering up our nudes to Facebook gives over another part of ourselves to someone we don’t know.

“I do think that people are weary because [Facebook] is such a data miner and their digital representations of them are already being used in facebook’s interests,” Karaian explained. “When the message behind this is ‘we’re doing this for you,’ people have some reason to be suspicious of that message.”

Until specifics of the pilot’s technology are made clear, Karaian doubts users will put their faith in it.

“Are you expected to stand in front a mirror and take 12 different potential images with different poses that they can create that digital fingerprint? It seems unclear as to what is required to be fully protected.”

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