YouTube recently unveiled a new face blurring tool that lets users choose to conceal every face in a video they have uploaded. This is a commendable step towards fostering anonymous speech on the Internet. Activists around the world rely on being able to speak freely through online media, including video, while hiding their own identities for fear of persecution. Such a tool would allow for crucial footage to be seen and dialogue to be heard—all without risking visual recognition. Though the tool is not perfect, YouTube has noted that they hope to improve the technology to allow more targeted, accurate blurs. For an-indepth analysis of the tool, see this detailed post from WITNESS.
The timing of this announcement is appropriate, as the Senate held a hearing about the greater implications of facial recognition technology last week. EFF's Jennifer Lynch testified at the hearing about how such technologies bring up major privacy and civil liberties concerns. The possibility of matching YouTube stills to large databases full of identifying data makes online video a risky domain for activists around the world. (Google does warn that "Video footage of your face is not the only way someone can detect your identity," noting vocal identifiers and background clues.)
Despite these important steps towards protecting anonymity, YouTube also has begun encouraging users to use their real names in an attempt to clean up video comments. Though YouTube policymakers "realize that using your full name isn’t for everyone," there is tension in a system that urges the use of real identities as a default mode while providing options to preserve anonymity.
EFF believes anonymous speech is crucial to political and social discourse. We are glad to see potentially lifesaving technological approaches to protecting free speech.