It’s a common enough thing. People pick up a new firearm and they snap a picture to share on Facebook, either on their profile or in one of the hundreds of firearm-focused groups on the platform. They want to show their friends what they got. You know, before it gets lost in a tragic boating accident.
However, according to the good folks over at The Firearm Blog, there’s a problem with that practice.
Google and Facebook have now made it possible to find photos of firearms by simply typing a serial number into the search box. Earlier today, the automotive website Jalopnik published a story showing how license plate numbers are evidently scanned using optical character recognition (OCR) on Google images, allowing them to be searchable using text queries. Using the OCR hypothesis, TFB wondered if this image data mining technique might be able to be used to search for firearm serial numbers. Using images posted previously on TFB with serial numbers displayed on firearms, we tested the serial number search technique. As you can see from the results below, firearm serial numbers are in fact part of this apparent large-scale data mining operation by companies like Google and Facebook.
Facebook and Google are Reading and Cataloging Your Firearm Serial Numbers. If you’re an avid TFB reader, you might have read our article about how we’re not concerned about posting firearms serial numbers. However, this does not mean that we should be complacent in the information that we share being controlled or censored.
Go to the original link for photos of their findings.
To be fair, TFB notes that the firearm community isn’t being singled out in this by any stretch. After all, the tip to explore this was a story on Jalopnik about license plates being scanned and tracked as well.
The problem, in my mind, is that there are no grounds to do so. I can’t imagine a legitimate reason to scan each image and write a script that will pick out alphanumeric strings and make them searchable. Neither with license plates or with gun serial numbers.
In fairness, I guess I can think of one reason. Searching gun serial numbers may allow the police to find stolen guns since criminals often pose for photos with their firearms.
But that’s a longshot, in my opinion.
While license plates are fairly public–I mean, we see them on the road each and every day–firearm serial numbers are something different, especially when we don’t know how Facebook or Google are storing the data. Neither has been particularly great when it comes to privacy concerns in the past. I can’t help but wonder if they’re somehow also keeping the account that shared that image, creating something of an impromptu database of gun ownership.
Or I may need to break out the tinfoil. I’ll admit that I may well be going down some rabbit holes in my thinking that isn’t warranted.
Regardless, someone had to intentionally write programming to do this with images, and I can’t imagine a single legitimate reason to do so. I’m sorry, I can’t. While I appreciate being able to plug a tracking number into Google and find out when my UPS package will be delivered, I don’t want someone to plug in the serial number on my Glock 19 and find anything.
Of course, for our purposes, it’s easy to defeat if you have concerns. For one, don’t photograph it where the serial number is visible. If it is, use Photoshop or similar program to obscure the number.
While some won’t care either way, which is fine, it’s important that people know so that if they do have an issue with it, they can act accordingly.