In 2010, at the Open Video Conference hackathon, I came up with a concept called “auto blur the news”, while in a brainstorm with activists, advocates and coders, including Sam Gregory, a longtime ally from WITNESS. Using the built-in face recognition features on modern smartphones, you could instantly redact faces from a photo or video, instead of tagging or tracking those same faces. Out of this came an app called ObscuraCam, which was always meant as a proof of concept demonstration to help lobby mainstream apps and operating systems a simple feature available for all.
(Un)fortunately, ObscuraCam has been around for 10 years, become a “real” app, and growing in users and stability, though with minimal funding and resources. WITNESS did make progress convincing YouTube to add a blur capability in some of its tools, and we had many meetings with Samsung, Google, Facebook and others, on the possibility of building this in to their camera software. We have also seen widespread use of ObscuraCam by people wanting to preserve privacy for their children, at school events, when selling cars online or to protect strangers caught in the background of a random photo. We also had the change to integrate some defensive AI image glitching as part of last year’s Assembly program.
Last night, the idea of adoption of these features beyond the confines of our little PoC occurred, with Signal announcing the general availability of automatic and manual photo redaction tools in their recent update: https://signal.org/blog/blur-tools/
Our friends at WITNESS also tweeted
@SamGregory “10 years ago @guardianproject @witnessorg emphasized need for better easy tools to protect people’s visual #anonymity, faces on mobile, vs + #facialrecognition. We built #obscuracam, pushed 4 #blur on #YouTube. Great seeing @signalapp introduce on their secure messaging platform!”
I am beyond thrilled that this has happened, especially right now, because it means users have an option, within the secure messenger they are already using, to capture photos directly to encrypted storage, redact and blur as needed, and then instantly share them in an encrypted manner to trusted contacts. With disappearing messages enabled, the presence of that image on their phone is ephemeral, reducing risk for self-incrimination if they are detained.
NOW, I write all of this to you, because as fantastic as it is that Signal’s tens of millions of users have this feature, we need this built-in as a normal capability in every device, every camera software and every messenger app. Just like with end-to-end encryption, Signal is leading the way in showing how this capability can be standardized and usable for all.
We should probably create a petition or other public call to action. Right now, I think Signal should get the acclaim they deserve for furthering this idea, and pioneering just how secure a messenger app can be. If you have any ins, sway, influence or other connections to any other messenger service, social media or camera app, or mobile operating system vendor, please forward this, and let them know that we here ready to share the insights and wisdom we’ve gained over the last decade in how to implement this critical privacy feature correctly.