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We're now close to or already at a stage where large social networks can recognize people from photos with facial recognition even without any context such as mutual friends. Facebook announced recognizing faces without being tagged well over a year ago and we can only expect technology has improved since then.

If someone goes into a witness protection program and gets a new identity then building their new lives, even from the other side of the world, is now potentially at risk. Previously large criminal organizations could possibly have paid off the witness protection program agents, but this is an expected attack vector and I'm sure government programs protect themselves from that somewhat. But what would it take for criminal organizations to pay off some high-ranking Facebook engineers in order to see if there are any recent matches for a number of portraits they supply? Could they reliably restrict access to such lookups even to those on the infrastructure side of things that simply need low level access to databases?

How could or do these networks protect people from abuse of their system?

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They probably won't. After all, dispelling and selling everyone's not-so-well-kept secrets - where they live, who they know, where they shop and what for... - is the social networks' business.

Reaching this data is unlikely to require anything as dramatic as bribing high-ranking fb engineers. Face recognition data is largely used in the open, with the advertised goal of helping users find their own photos, and it will likely be sold to third parties. It doesn't even matter if the social network itself has face recognition, as the photos themselves are in the open; others can run their own software on them.

Even without face recognition, it's a challenge to maintain two isolated social network identities (including non-simultaneously). Are you going to stop liking and reposting the same pages? Similar pages, views? Do you remember every one of your online-only friends so as not to add them again? It will only take a careless move or two, maybe even by your new friends, to create a connection. Not enough to pinpoint you, just to create a search circle around your old identity, and from there it's one step to your new identity's picture being recognized.

The simple answer is, social networks are not compatible with privacy. Their explicit goal is to put your life online and that's what they do. Their privacy restrictions are paper-thin and suitable for protection against minor embarrassment, not life and death situations.

Fortunately, social network use is still not mandatory. As long as there's enough non-users that they don't stick out (we're still on that edge), the choice exists.

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    The only problem is that if you want any kind of social life, you cannot prevent your picture being taken on occasion. Even without your own profile, facial recognition could do its job. For this I guess these platforms have something in place to prevent internal abuse (due to bribes etc.) but like you I am pretty sure they are inadequate. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Feb 8 at 11:56
  • @SebastiaanvandenBroek "You cannot" is a mild way to put it! With cameras everywhere, you're getting captured on photo or video daily without knowing. What still makes a difference is that without online profiles, there's not much to look for. The attacker would need to scan billions of pictures, looking for a match to whatever pictures he has of you from the past. It's a matter of how much resources the attacker needs, and that can be greatly reduced (probably by 4-6 orders of magnitude) by social networking. – Therac Feb 8 at 20:05
  • The method I was picturing is more simple: pay off some high level engineers at Facebook, give them some pictures of your target and then see where else this person has been seen in the world, possibly in a social meeting with new friends (but without a personal profile), or even just as a random bystander in someone’s picture, like someone in the background of a selfie. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Feb 9 at 12:01

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