Technology can be a powerful force in times of crisis and has enabled recent applications like contact tracing apps and remote-working tools that help businesses adhere to safe social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. But technology can also be abused, with discrete surveillance tools often masquerading as solutions to a crisis and facial recognition technology increasingly being used to target activists.

Law enforcement officials across the U.S. have already revealed that they will leverage facial recognition technology to retroactively target protesters following the killing of George Floyd, with police asking the public for footage and photos. Against this backdrop, Signal is introducing a new feature that can automatically obfuscate faces shared within the encrypted messaging app, as the company says it’s “working hard to keep up with the increased traffic” from protesters.

Moving forward, Signal users will be able to activate a feature in the main photo editing toolbox that will automatically blur all faces it identifies in an image.

Above: Signal’s photo-editing tool

As with many automated computer vision tools, Signal doesn’t claim that its face-blurring smarts are 100% effective. It may not identify all faces in a photo, which is why users can manually obscure faces by drawing the blur brush across each face with their finger.

Above: Signal: Face-blurring

This new feature strives to address the fact that anyone, from a local resident to a journalist, can snap a picture of a crowd and share it without considering the impact that may have on those in the image. Anyone present could be subject to an investigation if the photo is passed through facial recognition software and a match found — albeit with questionable accuracy — on an existing database.

Crises

Every global crisis opens up opportunities for digital platforms with the right tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented demand for video-based communication platforms and remote-working tools, while ecommerce has gone through the roof. And as protests continue to sweep across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of local police, numerous apps have seen huge spikes in downloads. Among those is Citizen, which offers a community safety app for police alerts, as well as mobile police scanners where activists can listen in to police conversations.

And Signal has once again been thrust into the limelight, becoming one of the most-downloaded social networking apps on iOS in the U.S. this week. This is not an unusual trend, as Signal has been heavily used during various political upheavals. It was among a number of privacy-focused online services to benefit from Donald Trump’s 2016 election win, with many concerned citizens worried about what his rise to power would mean for civil liberties. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has long been a proponent of Signal, while in the past year the European Commission and the U.K.’s Conservative Party have also switched to Signal for many of their communications.

Face-blurring is not a new concept, and it’s something the likes of YouTube have offered editors for years. In fact, the Google-owned video giant first introduced face-blurring back in 2012, partly to help human rights reporters protect the identity of subjects in their photos and videos.

Signal’s latest feature, which will be rolling out in the coming days, has been designed with a similar goal in mind. It could be a testament to the evolution of social media over the past decade, with messaging apps now playing a pivotal role in disseminating information.