Apple has gone to great lengths to build iOS, the operating system on your iPhone, to be as "privacy-protective" as it can. For example, it requires developers to ask permission before their apps can track you. It also allows you to see exactly what information apps are collecting. Last year, the company introduced Private Relay to protect your browsing activity from prying eyes, and the "Hide My Email" feature lets you use a burner email address anytime you sign up for an app or service.
All of those features are the result of Apple's view that "privacy is a fundamental human right." For the most part, Apple's commitment to protecting its users' privacy is genuine. Of course, the one thing the iPhone can't do is protect people from themselves.
It's sort of the law of unintended consequences. If you make something that makes it easy for people to do something they enjoy, they'll do it a lot, and may not consider that there are consequences.
The unintended consequence of having a device that you carry everywhere and use to capture photos and videos of your activity is that we've become conditioned to share a lot of personal information without even thinking about it. Most people don't think about the information they are providing when they share images online.
Not only do the images you share contain the faces of the people in the photo, but they also contain information like the location you took the photo, what camera you used, your device type and name, and more. And what about if that photo includes other people who might not necessarily want their face all over social media?
Most people don't think at all about posting images of their kids or friends or a bunch of random strangers in the background at an amusement park or sporting event. The thing is, nothing on the internet ever really goes away.
Fortunately, there's a simple app that solves the problem, even if you didn't know it was something you should care about in the first place. I spoke with independent developer and podcaster Casey Liss about his new app MaskerAid. Liss told me the idea for the app came as he thought about the images he posted of his son:
I don't think he'd really care about any of the pictures I posted because they're not embarrassing. They're not goofy for the most part. They're just pictures of my kid. But it occurred to me that it should kind of be his choice and at 4 years old, he is in no position to understand what consent is and what that means.
After years of trying to avoid posting his children's faces online, Liss says, he thought there had to be a better way. It also occurred to him that there were probably other people who might also have the same problem:
I was watching a WWDC session, and they had mentioned face detection. And it was one of those things that just kind of, you know, washed over me. And then fast-forward a few months or a year or something like that, and it occurred to me that I could use a combination of Apple's face detection API in concert with stuff that I put around it in order to make it super easy to put emoji or some other occlusion, but for now, emoji, in front of people's faces.
So I started noodling with this a little bit, and within the span of just a day or two, I had a very rudimentary proof of concept put together, and then six months later, MaskerAid came out.
The free app is about as simple as it gets. Open an image and it automatically detects any faces and places an emoji over them. You can resize, or even add additional emoji to anything else you want to hide in the image. A one-time $3 in-app purchase unlocks the full library of emoji forever.
It makes sense that this app would be appealing to parents, or anyone else who just wants a very simple way to annotate images to obscure faces or other identifying information. But, as with any technology, this one comes with unintended consequences--or at least, unintended uses--though, in this case, that's a good thing.
When you export a modified image from MaskerAid, it also strips all metadata from the file. That part might be the best feature. Every time you upload a photo to Facebook, for example, the social media giant strips the location and other information before publishing the photo, but it still collects it for its own purposes. With MaskerAid, all it gets is the image and file size.
I love this story for two reasons. The first is that Liss came up with an innovative way to solve a problem that he and a lot of other people had, which is trying to be conscious of privacy online. And it isn't just parents.
"A couple of people reached out, pointed out this could be used for protesters, perhaps in Russia, who are really taking a tremendous personal risk by expressing their beliefs," Liss told me. "You could take a photograph of a crowd of people and, you know, potentially MaskerAid could help obscure their faces. Similarly, if you're taking photographs of people who are defending Ukraine, you could use this to obscure their faces."
The other thing I love is that the app solves a privacy problem we all have, even if we don't think about it. That's the problem that we tend to share far more personal information than we mean to. MaskerAid makes it simple to share images and only share what you want to reveal.
It's not uncommon that someone builds something and it ends up being used for a purpose other than they intended, or in ways you couldn't have anticipated. Sometimes it's a good thing, like a simple app that gives you control over what you share online.