For thousands of years, man has been uploading videos to YouTube, only to watch those videos later and be like, “Oh $#!t, you can totally see my address, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, email password, and bank account info in the background of that one with my cat eating a banana!”

For primitive YouTubers, the only remedy was to delete their videos, edit them themselves, and re-upload them. New technology now makes the process of obscuring sensitive information, images, and identities much, much easier.

More Than Just A Clever Name

YouTube calls the new feature, which allows users to customize how what parts of their videos are blurred, “Custom Blurring”. The Custom Blurring widget joins the preexisting “Blur Faces” option, which blurs faces and has been available since 2012. Blur Faces was YouTube’s long-overdue (even for four years ago) first stab at protecting the anonymity of those on screen; Custom Blurring is another step in the right direction, and an even more impressive one.

Users can select the Custom Blurring feature from their YouTube home screen’s “Enhancements” menu. YouTubers can then “draw” a box around whatever it is to be obscured, set the position, resize as needed, and lock the blur box in place. Or, even more impressively, users can draw their box and turn it over to YouTube’s auto-blurring technology, which will automatically keep the area blurred, even when the person (or whatever is blurred) is moving around the video screen. This is similar to Blur Faces, which automatically blurs selected faces in every frame in which they appear.

“While the [uses] for this tool are vast, we built [it] with visual anonymity in mind,” said Amanda Conway, YouTube’s privacy lead, which is a thing, apparently, said in a blog post. “We wanted to give [users] a simple way to blur things like people, contact information, or financial data”.
A.K.A. The CYA Button

I’ve often wondered about the legality of using/displaying peoples’ identities and likenesses in YouTube videos. The reason the faces of people in the background on reality shows and the like are usually blurred out is because it is, essentially, illegal to show someone’s face without their consent.

When the Jackass guys pranked someone, and that person’s face was clearly visible on screen, that means a production assistant got that person’s written permission to appear on television (and probably paid them a hundred bucks or so). Same with a show like Billy On the Street—participants on the “game show” must sign consent waivers, and even those who lose their “games” are still paid a small fee. Winners get their winnings plus a “yes you can show my face on TV” fee.

Legally, how does that shake out for YouTube? It’s not broadcast television, certainly, but it’s still a public viewing forum. And, anyone who’s got an ad at the bottom of their video or an ad running before it is making money off it, meager though those earnings be. Is a rando in the background of your video entitled to a cut, since you’re technically using their image without permission? What about your friend who knew he was in the video, but didn’t explicitly give you permission to post the clip with him in it?*

Blur Faces and Custom Blurring are YouTube’s CYA solutions, and pretty darned good ones. Impressive technology, too. Still no fix for those filming in portrait instead of landscape, though. ALWAYS FILM IN LANDSCAPE, DAMMIT!

* Surely, there’s legal information on this matter to be found somewhere. I’d look it up, but Google is all the way over there…