Book of Faces

Illustration by Carlos PX vis Unsplash.

“What app do you guys use for group chats?”

A simple question posed in the workplace, revealing an interesting generational difference between co-op students and full-time employees despite an age difference spanning no more than five years.

Replies from co-ops were overwhelmingly in favour of Instagram, met by incredulity (and some condescension) from full-timers, who wondered how Instagram could ever be used to coordinate large discussions or organize events.

Perhaps a bit defensively, co-ops asked, “Well, what do you use?”


Readers, what we all rather ironically failed to recognize at the time was the illusion of choice.

Indeed, as Instagram DMs and Facebook Messenger become interconnected, with WhatsApp picking up any slack, Facebook is approaching near domination of modern communication techniques through social media.

Facebook Inc. owns four of the five largest social media platforms with the most users internationally (with Google’s YouTube at place 2). Even pitted against the rise of TikTok (owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd. [1]), Instagram as the least-used of the Facebook Four still boasts a lead of 532 million more users ahead of TikTok. Facebook itself is in first place, with close to 3 billion users [2] and 1.5 billion active users [3]. 

Aside from the horrifying implications of 1.5 billion inactive accounts including an ever-increasing tally of deceased users and memorialized pages, the number of Facebook users worldwide make up about 35% of the world’s population, and nearly 60% of the world’s active internet users, as of January 2021 [4,5]. Isn’t it scary that the majority of all humans on Earth have Facebook, of all things, in common? 

My reason for boarding this train of thought is this pop-up screen from when I tried opening the Instagram app one day, barring me any access to my account before disappearing inexplicably about a month later: 

Image Description: Pop-up screen reading “Take a Video Selfie: We need a short video of you turning your head in different directions. This helps us confirm that you’re a real person and confirm your identity.” Beneath this in smaller text, it reads: “This video will never be visible on Instagram and will be deleted within 30 days. This won’t use face recognition or collect biometric data.”

“This won’t use face recognition” stood out to me as intentionally vague. It could very well mean the process of recording the video will not use facial recognition, but by avoiding stating what “this” is, there is nothing negating the video’s use in training facial recognition AI after it has been recorded and stored.

The existing terms and conditions all Instagram users have agreed to are already iffy. By using the platform, users forfeit the rights to any of their own content or any financial benefits reaped by Instagram through its use [6]. Even further within the Privacy section, users agree to share information about their location, the people they contact, the content they interact with, the device they use to access Instagram, their network and connections, and their information from other websites, whether Facebook-affiliated or not [7].

Under the section titled “How do we use this information?,” the policy outlines one section on Face Recognition: “If we introduce face-recognition technology to your Instagram experience, we will let you know first, and you will have control over whether we use this technology for you.” [7]. As we’ve already seen, this is not entirely true. The user may have the choice to not allow the use of face-recognition technology, but they will no longer be able to access their account.

So sure, this new video selfie requirement has some shady wording, but Instagram is proprietary software, and technically the company has every legal right to require whatever kind of input, even biometric data, before granting an individual access to their service.

But should they?

I argue that, now more than ever both in the modern world and through a pandemic, we cannot have society without social media.

It’s almost nefarious to force users into this ultimatum. Of course, there is always the option to not provide the video selfie, accept that the account will no longer be accessible, and resign oneself to using LinkedIn for social connections (as I did, not to be cowed by mega-corporations into rolling over and selling them my face so they can advertise me undereye concealer or a nose job).

I’m rather lucky though. I live with my family, text my friends regularly, and I would briefly lament the loss of the few connections provided by Instagram to acquaintances whose pictures I double-tap but don’t comment before moving on none too affected. For many this isn’t the case.

Social media provides connection. For those who live alone, or who have family members and friends that live alone, reaching out through social media during the pandemic has been one of the lifelines keeping people connected and feeling not as alone through more than a year of isolation. Others depend on social media for their livelihood, again, now more than ever with in-person businesses suffering. For an entire group of people, suddenly being denied access to their social media would come at a much greater cost than they are able to afford to their biometric data. Mega-corporation has cornered the market and now when they say jump their users are hard done not to respond “How high?”.

Regulating this is somewhat new territory. I’m not sure what the past equivalent might be, but it’s perhaps akin to the post office not only giving your address to junk mail providers, but your mailman opening each letter, copying the contents, and selling your interests to relevant companies for targeted junk mail, while you are forced to stand there and watch because you’re waiting for a cheque to come and need to pay your rent.

I suppose I’m arguing for the government’s right to interfere in private corporations. Rather, our current society has become so massively reliant upon social media for day-to-day communication, that any monopoly such as the one held by Facebook has a greater amount of control over the general populace than should be afforded to any one private corporation. By holding access to what has become a main method of communication over their users’ heads, Facebook has ample opportunity to exploit this power and take advantage of their users.

This is not just a concern over the hypothetical. The Facebook data breach which came to a head in 2019 involved the release of information on over half a billion users. This included user addresses, phone numbers and account IDs which can be used to access not only the associated Facebook account, but any linked accounts (i.e. any  website which allows users to log in using Facebook) [8]. The prevalence of such websites, and the omnipresent nature of Facebook when interacting with anything on the internet, essentially discloses a biography of any user, cataloguing their entire digital presence.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) imposed a record-breaking $5 billion penalty upon Facebook for carelessness in privacy enforcement, and outlined requirements intended to prevent the abuse of users [9]. For a company with $528 billion net-worth [10], this is peanuts, and provides little justice for the disadvantaged individual. 

I would go so far as to say that data breaches and lack of guidelines protecting user identity constitutes a digital prostitution of sorts. How far will this exploitation be taken before privacy becomes a thing of the past? In our advancing digital society, it is necessary that digital communication be better protected, and the power be taken from the elite and given back to the individual through the oversight of democratically elected officials.

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiktok-sale-to-oracle-walmart-is-shelved-as-biden-reviews-security-11612958401#:~:text=The%20TikTok%20deal%E2%80%94which%20had,TikTok’s%20owner%2C%20China’s%20ByteDance%20Ltd.

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

[3] https://www.algonquincollege.com/ac-social-media/facebook-stats/#:~:text=Worldwide%2C%20there%20are%20over%201.5,Facebook%20news%20feed%20every%20day

[4] https://countrymeters.info/en/World

[5] https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/#:~:text=How%20many%20people%20use%20the,the%20internet%20via%20mobile%20devices.

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13600869.2018.1475897

[7] https://help.instagram.com/519522125107875

[8] https://theconversation.com/facebook-data-breach-what-happened-and-why-its-hard-to-know-if-your-data-was-leaked-158417

[9] https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/07/ftc-imposes-5-billion-penalty-sweeping-new-privacy-restrictions

[10] https://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-businessmen/companies/facebook-net-worth/

1 Comment

  1. Ratan Varghese

    I agree completely. One company should not have this much control over social media. It would be much better to have a larger number of smaller social networks.

    I hope regulators will find a way to bring more choice and more privacy to the social media markets. At the very least, Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to purchase even more social networks: both Instagram and WhatsApp were once independent companies, and letting Facebook buy them was not great for society.

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