Just the other day I discovered something behind the scenes on Facebook pages which came as quite a surprise!  A slow internet connection revealed to me that Facebook is analysing all of the photos we’re uploading every day.   They’re able to tell what each photo is of and potentially use this to learn more about you!

First a little background.

When the web was first developed, we didn’t have the high-speed connections we had now.   The internet came over the phone line and we had to use a modem to “dial-up”.   The younger generation won’t remember what it was like to painfully wait for a page to gradually appear, only to have the connection drop when someone else in the house picked up a handset!

Images are the worst for this – they contain a lot of data and are the slowest to download.   But as the page was downloading, the browser was able to give you an idea of what each image was as it downloaded a description of it first.   This description was included in something called an “alt” tag.   If we look at the code for each image it looks something like this:

<img src=”path to image” alt=”Picture of dog”>

This way as the browser was spending its time downloading the photo – it could put the placeholder “Picture of dog” up instead.

Later, Google came along and started using this Alt tag to learn more about the content of a page.   For example, if you were searching for “pictures of dogs”, it might assume that the picture above was of interest.

This became an important tactic in optimising web pages for google – a tactic known as Search Engine Optimisation or SEO for short.  One of the early SEO methods was to stuff every picture on the page with keywords that you were trying to promote.  Google soon caught on though, and over time paid less attention to these tags.   Instead, they worked on image recognition technology which “looked” at every picture on the Internet and tried to figure out what it was.   This has progressed tremendously now – not only are they able to understand that the picture is of a dog, they can tell the breed and where the dog is by the background!   This is incredibly useful when searching for images on Google.

However, it’s this image recognition that I spotted on Facebook the other day.   I was on a slow connection, and the browser decided to show the alt tags instead of the images.   Every image in my feed had a description.  Think about it – when you upload an image – Facebook doesn’t ask you what the image is of?   Instead, they’re analysing the image to determine the content.

OK, so that’s not bad is it?   It helps when you have a slow connection?

Well a patent announced today shows that Facebook are potentially using image data to learn more about your household.   The patent was filed back in May 2017 but only became public today.   It describes how Facebook intend to use image data along with other factors such as IP address, hashtags, comments and more to learn more about your family and friends.

It’ll also analyze past posts, so any photos you’ve posted previously are open to analysis too.

If you want to take a look at the hashtags, you can get a little techie and look under the hood at what’s going on.   Right click on an image and select “inspect”.   This will show you the code around that part of the page.   Look for the alt=”” text to see what Facebook knows about the image.   Scary isn’t it!

Until next time, think before you post an image and wonder for a minute if it gives away too much about you to Facebook!