Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp down: Outage reveals how your photos are scanned for information

If you use Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp, you were probably affected by the outage that hit these social media platforms yesterday (3 July).

By Rhona Shennan
Thursday, 04 July, 2019, 15:15

Something you may have noticed during this time is how the platforms tag and categorise your photos.

Scanning your photos for information

Did you see this strange glitch the other day? (Photo: Shutterstock)

The glitch affected the social media platforms in a variety of ways, like the ability to upload or post, but it also exposed how the companies see your photos.

Instead of loading images properly, users were shown descriptions generated by Facebook (which owns Instagram and Whatsapp) like, “Image may contain: one person, close up, smiling, outdoors”.

These are based on something called an object recognition system, which works to add a label to a picture even if you haven’t added your own caption or description.

Facebook automatically scans all the photos uploaded to their social networks with a facial and image recognition software that is powered by AI in order to try and detect who and what is in the picture.

Why do social media sites scan your images?

Facebook’s ability to scan images via machine learning is part of the company’s accessibility efforts for blind or visually impared users.

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Alternative text for users with vision impairments has been generated by the social media giant since 2015. In 2017, the software was updated in order to more accurately scan photos. Visually impaired users that are accessing Facebook through a screen reader have these interpretations read aloud to them.

The Facebook help centre states, “Automatic alternative (alt) text uses object recognition technology to create a description of a photo for the blind and vision-loss community.”

Future of information on social media

In April, Digital Information World (DIW) reported that Facebook was granted a patent for a new technology that would let the social media platform scan your photos and spot products in them.

DIW reported, “The data will then be sent to relevant brands so you can be offered more of their products.”

“It means that if you (a Facebook user) post a picture on the platform or Instagram (owned by Facebook), while eating a Big Mac (with the wrapper featuring McDonald’s logo), Facebook’s new technology can scan that photo and with the help of an “image object recognition algorithm”, it can spot McDonald’s wrapper and sell that information to McDonald’s, and give them an impression that you like their product.”

“In simpler words, McDonald’s can then purchase ads on Facebook to convince you to buy more of their products.

“Additionally, Facebook can also extend the reach of these ads to your friends’ news feeds, as a type of sponsored story.”