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Facebook wants your nudes to tackle revenge porn

The social network is testing new measures that would ‘hash’ your private photos as non-consensual explicit media

Revenge porn is still an ongoing, terrifying problem: in the U.S, 4 per cent of internet users have had their private images shared without their consent online, a number that rises to 10 per cent when it’s women under 30. While the average age of a victim in the UK is 25, children as young as 11 reported incidents of revenge porn. Facebook was the main platform used by perpetrators to spread explicit images, clocking in at 68 per cent of cases. 

Now the social media giant is testing new methods to curb revenge porn, with measures that give users control over their own intimate photos. This is how it works, basically: people who are concerned about nude or sexual images shared with others that they think could potentially post them without their consent can access Facebook Messenger and send the images to be digitally ‘hashed’ by a community operations analyst. This means they will be encrypted with a unique and traceable digital print. It utilises the same artificial intelligence-based tech that’s used by algorithms that determine faces in images.

This photo-matching technology is also used by Facebook and other platforms to monitor extremist and graphic imagery.

Iain Wilson, a partner at Brett Wilson LLP which helps victims of revenge porn make criminal cases, told Dazed: “Facebook, due to its popularity, is often misused as tool of harassment. Many of us are careless with our privacy settings and this allows troublemakers easy access to their friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Where there’s an axe to grind, Facebook is often a quick way to inflict maximum damage or embarrassment.”

One of the major problems with revenge porn is that though it could be taken down once, it could still be circulating elsewhere across the platform, duplicated again and again. It’s an uphill struggle, and finding the images, contacting the network and getting them taken down is time-consuming. Images can be tough to track down too. Wilson states that “the advent of technology that does this work for you – and instantaneously before any harm is done – must be welcomed.”

Any attempts to upload the same image by a user will identify the image’s metadata and block it. This scheme will debut in Australia, where users will first complete an online form outlining any concerns before sending their images off to Messenger to stop the cruel and criminal act of revenge porn. Facebook says they’ll store the images for a short amount of time before they’re deleted.

“There is already a considerable amount of concern in some quarters about the amount of personal data that the internet giants and other technology companies hold on us” – Iain Wilson, Brett Wilson LLP

The “robust hashing technology”, named “photoDNA” was developed by Microsoft and Dartmouth University back in 2008 to combat images of child abuse. Hany Farid, a developer of photoDNA and professor of computer science at Dartmouth told Dazed: “From what I understand, Facebook is using robust hashing technology to find and remove known instances of revenge porn. Robust hashing works by extracting a distinct digital signature from an image (or video) of known bad content (child porn, revenge porn, terror-related material, etc.) This steps requires a human to identify the content. Then, with this signature in hand, all uploads to a social media platform are compared to a list of known bad content.”

Speaking of its use to curb images of child abuse circulated widely, Farid said the technology is “well understood and is highly effective”. 

He added that he was “thrilled” to see Facebook tackle a growing and troubling problem. “I hope that other social media and Internet companies will adopt the same or similar technologies,” Farid continued. “A broad deployment of this type of technology is important to remove this cruel content from not just one platform, but from all platforms.” 

Facebook already bans accounts engaging in revenge porn, and a scheme to combat it was launched by the site last April, where users can flag nonconsensual explicit images to Facebook’s trained reps that review and remove the pics. Technology prevents it being posted again. The new tool that’s being tested provides preemptive assurance to people concerned about their intimate, private pictures.

Lawyer Iain Wilson points to the limitations of such technology. “In many instances, a victim of revenge porn will not have access to the digital image themselves,” he says. “This is because revenge porn is often about the threat of disclosure, or a false claim that disclosure has been made, as a device to control, blackmail or simply to cause distress and anxiety. Without the source file, images cannot be blocked.

“Secondly, whilst making the most-widely used platforms such as Facebook safer, these only represent part of the world wide web which extends to some five billion pages. The nature of and revenge porn is such that the perpetrators would simply seek to post material on other websites (which could be linked to from Facebook). That said, if victims are attracted to the idea, in theory any number of websites could sign up.” 

“A broad deployment of this type of technology is important to remove this cruel content from not just one platform, but from all platforms” – Hany Farid, professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth

What’s concerning is that the privacy of those trusting Facebook with their photos preemptively could be compromised by a security breach. The social network is also tight-lipped about how it actually stores and collates data.

Wilson says a big concern is that many will feel strange entrusting a private company with sensitive personal data. “It’s difficult to conceive how many categories of personal data that are more sensitive than images of one engaged in sexual acts,” he explains. “There is already a considerable amount of concern in some quarters about the amount of personal data that the internet giants and other technology companies hold on us and the different ways they tend to use this data, often without us being fully aware (for example for marketing purposes).”

Myles Jackman, the legal director of digital campaigning organisation for online privacy and free speech Open Rights Group, told Dazed about these security issues: “Whilst so-called revenge porn is both a moral and criminal breach of consent in the UK ­– this Australian pilot scheme (which may be Facebook’s attempt to achieve the sheen of corporate social responsibility) is riven with privacy and security risks for any user uploading nude pictures.”

"If Facebook wants to go down this road they need to maintain the highest levels of transparency on how this very sensitive data is stored and processed, and ensure these nude photos will not violate Facebook's prudish terms of service."

According to Facebook, it’s looking into trialing these methods in other countries.