Journalism in Big Brother USA: YouTube's Face-Blurring Feature, Tested

Yesterday, YouTube introduced a new 'face-blurring' feature that does exactly that. The goal is to provide "video anonymity" for those who desire it—the company explains the reasoning behind the filter thusly: "Whether you want to share sensitive...

Jul 19 2012, 6:40pm

Yesterday, YouTube introduced a new ‘face-blurring’ feature that does exactly what it sounds like. The goal is to provide “video anonymity” for those who desire it—the company explains the reasoning behind the filter thusly: “Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your 8-year-old's basketball game without broadcasting the children's faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube.”

The idea is that filter should help improve media freedom: protesters, whistleblowers, and amateur reporters will now be able to shield their identities from oppressive regimes and the authorities while still sharing video documentation of crucial events. The import of the filter may be somewhat lost on us breezy, free-internet, civil liberty-enjoying Americans, however—our authorities aren’t quite ready to sift through YouTube videos for images of inflammatory activists and throw them in prison without charges, as they do in Egypt, Iran, etc.

But who knows! That dystopian day may yet arrive sometime soonish; our police corps are militarized as hell, they’re deploying drones and riot gear where a simple patrol used to do. So perhaps it won’t be long before the police are scouring YouTube and the FBI’s got crack teams poring over Twitter for anti-American agitators. Which gives us a fine idea: Let’s imagine for a second that they we do live in an authoritarian-leaning state! Let’s imagine that whistleblowers were punished by the state, that police sought out retribution against YouTube-savvy protestors, and that cozy ties between industry and government meant that perpetrating an act of civil disobedience or producing an inconvenient revelation could land you in jail. Imagine that!

Here’s what it might look like; the following are various YouTube videos I’ve shot and uploaded over the last couple years, both for kicks and on assignment. In Big Brother-y surveillance state America, I had to use the old Face-Blur filter, though, obvs, I also worried that YouTube could be pressured to remove the filter for the authorities …

Better blur up this #Occupy Wall Street protest in Times Square; those kids are committing all kinds of traffic violations and declaring ownership of the street. Ten minutes later, some of them would “resist arrest” when cops on horseback charged into the crowd. They must hate America:

I was with this scientist and activist when he discovered the first oil to wash ashore from the BP Gulf spill. I recorded him as he explained the deets—better watch your ass, though! Our surveillance state also happens to be a petro-state, where oil companies get all sorts of influence over the government. Might come after you for trespassing, defamation, who knows what—face-blurred!

Protest, outside the White House, with slogans mocking the president of the United States? Blur the whole thing.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sure, this is “supposed” to be a town hall meeting for Gulf residents to air their grievances after the spill, but let’s can it on these allegations that the benevolent oil company is endangering local workers it picked up for cheap cleanup labor. That’s starting to sound a little like rabble-rousing; don’t you know how big of a job creator BP is? Let’s blur you up, just to be on the safe side.

You’re an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, and the state has already been watching you a little too closely for comfort. But you want to get the word out about an important protest event on the dl. Face-blur.

The state is exceptionally nervous about anyone making connections between extreme weather and global climate change, and you’re a world-famous political leader agitator on the topic. Well, guess face-blur isn’t enough. You’d need a voice mod too, I suppose.