The new feature gives users more control over who downloads, shares their photos, but there are flaws in the plan.

Facebook rolls out safety shield with Indian women in mind but there are glaring loopholesImage for representation
Voices Social media Friday, June 23, 2017 - 15:22

Imagine the horror of stumbling onto a profile which has the same photos as you, but isn’t you. It’s a profile you never created, but it has your face, and perhaps words that you wouldn’t have written. And worse, people are interacting with this imposter, interactions which threaten to compromise your reputation and your identity.

Those who have gone through something similar will probably tell you to protect your pictures and your personal data online better. Take Facebook for instance, where your profile photo is public, though you can keep others private. Realising perhaps the damage caused by someone stealing just one picture, Facebook is now attempting to make it tougher for miscreants to download or share profile photos with new protection features, which will be first rolled out in India.

The features were announced on Wednesday and contain two components to give people “more control over their Facebook profile picture”. The first feature will allow users to turn on a ‘shield’, preventing anyone from downloading, sharing or sending the profile picture to anyone over Facebook messenger. It will also prevent people other than your friends from tagging anyone, including themselves on your profile picture. It will also prevent Android users from taking a screenshot of the photo.

There will also be a blue border around and a small shield symbol on your profile picture, signifying that you want it to be protected.

The other feature is that of adding a design on the profile photo, because Facebook found that people were 75% less likely to steal photos which had an extra layer of design on them. So Facebook got Jessica Singh, an illustrator, to design some layers inspired from “Indian textile designs like bandhani and kantha” that people can add on top of their profile photos.

It appears that Facebook is aiming for its female demographic with these features, because more often than not, they are the ones worse affected when their photos and personal data is stolen. So, the new features are all well and good and may be introduced with the right sentiment in mind, but here’s the problem – the approach has gaping loopholes.

Firstly, this is all based on the assumption that the profile picture is an “important part of building community on Facebook” as it helps “people find friends and create meaningful connections”. Therefore, the protection is only provided for the profile picture, and none of the others. The cover photo as well as the featured pictures, if one chooses to keep them, are also public. There are no similar features for them.

Secondly, turning on the shield is optional. But what if a woman, or anyone for that matter, doesn't do so and their photos are misused? And what about people who are not tech-savvy, or even the growing number of children accessing the social media platform? Given how deeply entrenched victim-blaming is when it comes to cyber-abuse or bulying, the argument that they didn't turn on the feature may be used against them.

Furthermore, the screenshot-barring option is available only for android phones, which makes it a self-limiting feature. And as Ila Ananya points out for The Ladies Finger, this also doesn’t stop someone from taking the picture of the photo through another  device – but that’s something no feature can deter.

Facebook also fails to address what is one of the fallouts of identity or personal data theft – abuse and misogyny that is directed towards the victim online. In fact, Facebook is known to have let abuse slide by and remain on its platform given its ideas about free expression.

For instance, according to The Guardian’s report on Facebook’s leaked rulebook on dealing with sex, terrorism and violence, comments like “To snap a bitch’s neck, make sure to apply all your pressure to the middle of her throat” are allowed while those like “Someone shoot Trump” will be deleted as they are considered credible threats.

What does this do? “By allowing threatening language aimed disproportionately at women, Facebook is effectively accepting that they may be forced out by hostility,” writes Amy Binns from University of Lancashire, for The Conversation.

Further, while social media provides an open and interactive platform for alternative discourses and opinions, if moderators don't take action against hostile comments and bullying (different from a nuanced debate), it may even end up discouraging people with non-majoritarian opinions from expressing them. This could actually negate the free expression which Facebook wants to promote.

Granted that Facebook rulebook is more reactionary and the new features more preventive in nature. However, the new features don’t exactly pass scrutiny in the latter area either. And the lack of accountability that comes with the web doesn’t help.

The point is simple: while Facebook went ahead with the right mindset, there’s very little you can currently do to stop a determined person from stealing anyone’s data off the internet. This is not to say that there’s no place for prevention, but it must be accompanied by proactive action against wrongdoers. And that’s an area Facebook still needs to work on. 

Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.

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