Google now offers a face blurring tool for YouTube videos that aims to protect the identities of the vulnerable and the politically outspoken. When uploading videos to the site, users have the option to obscure faces in a few easy steps. Just select the video requiring an edit within the Video Enhancements tool, select Additional Features, tick the Blur All Faces option and click “Apply”. The blurring technology does all the work for you, zeroing in on faces appearing in the video and smudging them out of recognition. After all changes are saved to the video, a new copy with blurred faces is created; then, users have the option of deleting the original video and publishing the new one in its stead.
The development of this blurring tool comes on the heels of a 2011 Cameras Everywhere report issued by WITNESS, an international human rights organization, that states: “No video-sharing site or hardware manufacturer currently offers users the option to blur faces or protect identity.” YouTube is among the first to provide just such an option. Activists who are vocal about their cause but fear persecution will benefit from this technology, as will parents who wish to share special family moments without broadcasting their children’s faces to the world.
Supposedly, the face blurring tool will allow for the transmission of important communications and foster honest dialogue between individuals and activists. Still, video remains a risky domain for the politically active, with Google admitting that the obscuring technology is emerging, meaning that, depending on video quality, lighting, camera angle and obstructions, the tool may not always be able to correctly identify faces for blurring. In the event that certain frames or faces are not obscured as needed, Google advises keeping the video private. In some cases, blurring must be done manually using third-party software and special techniques; it may be necessary to fall back on these external measures if YouTube’s blurring tool does not work as needed, but again, when in doubt, keep it private.
Clearly, then, YouTube’s face blurring tool is a step forward in visual anonymity, but is not without imperfections. Google has yet to develop a tool that would mask other identifying features, like voice and background objects, that might give away the identity and/or location of a video’s subject. All in all though, the tool will support the human right to privacy while allowing for candid expression and interaction among activists and protesters.
Video anonymization may be a liberating force, but in the wrong hands, it can lead to unfettered hate speech, trolling, promotion of terrorism and similar misuses. And it is clear that, even without knowing the identity of a given protester, a government may still try to stifle dissenting voices and make demands for the removal of content it finds subversive. With the adoption of this technology across different platforms and the refinement of the blurring mechanism, we’ll be seeing a great deal more controversial—albeit blurry—footage in the coming years.
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