Future Tense

YouTube Now Lets You Blur Faces in Videos. Will It Help Keep Human Rights Activists Safe?

Still from a 2011 YouTube video shows anti-government protesters in Syria.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

Today, YouTube announced that it has added a new tool: the ability to blur human faces in uploaded videos. “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,” says the YouTube blog.

YouTube has been something of a virtual battle zone for Syrian activists. The video sharing site has helped bring international attention to their plight, but it has also left them vulnerable to identification and allowed for some sneak attacks from Syrian authorities and loyalists. In March, for instance, malware was spread via a faux YouTube site that appeared to feature opposition videos.

If there is a downside here, it’s that the tool may give activists a false sense of security. Even if someone’s face is blurred, for instance, authorities may be able to identify them using clues—what clothes they’re wearing, their height, where the video was shot. (Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York wrote for Al Jazeera English’s website about the danger of activists incorrectly assuming that their social media information is secure.) The announcement emphasizes that the face-blurring tool is in its early stages and thus might not be perfect. If you look at the preview and don’t think that the faces are distorted enough, YouTube warns, don’t publish the video.

Another potential problem could come from criminals who idiotically but helpfully post videos of their acts online—like when groups beat a bystander while someone else films it. But it seems likely that YouTube would be able to provide law enforcement with the original footage.  

Update, July 18, 4 p.m.: YouTube’s Jessica Mason wrote in to clarify whether original versions of blurred videos could be used by law enforcement:

With this tool we are giving users the option to delete the original “unblurred” version. In the case that they choose to delete it, the video would be permanently gone from our serves and we would be unable to hand it over. This was designed with the security of activists in mind. We also take down videos that do not comply with our Community Guidelines.

In the case that a user did not delete the video and the government of one of the countries where we are launched had a valid court oder or subpoena, as a law-abiding company we would have to comply.