Facebook launched new features to help women in India

The company has launched two new features in India to reduce misuse of profile photos, announced on Thursday. Though the issue is not limited to that region of the world, the problem is prevalent in the country, according to Facebook.

The features include “profile picture guard” and “profile picture design.” The guard takes away some of the obvious ways of copying the photo; for example, people will no longer be able to download, share or send the profile picture as a message on Facebook.

The company also says the new upgrades will prevent people from taking a screenshot of profile photos, though that protection will be available only on Android devices, at least to start.

The second feature is a visual emblem — an type of outline or icon that signifies to the viewer that the profile pic is protected. Facebook found that using a design overlay on the photo made other people “at least 75% less likely to copy that picture.”


If users find that their profile picture is being misused, they can report it. In that case, the design will be used along with other signals to verify that the picture has been copied or misused.

There are several issues related to profile picture abuse — including scams, abuse, sexual harassment and spammy fake profiles. Facebook-based scams are one such issue. In September 2016, The Hindustan Times reported on “cloning” on social media, wherein scammers will impersonate users and befriend people they may know on Facebook, with the goal of ultimately extorting money.

“Every sixth social media user in India is a victim of online fraud, and 16% of online frauds are social media scams,” Alok Mittal, inspector general at National Investigation Agency (NIA) told the Times.

Profile picture theft is particularly a concern for women on the site, who may find their photos stolen and used in catfishing attempts or on “hot singles near you” style ads.

Aarati Soman, a product manager at Facebook who worked on the feature, is part of a largerteam that works on products for women in emerging markets. Soman’s team found that “some women choose not to share profile pictures that include their faces anywhere on the internetbecause they’re concerned about what may happen to their photos.”

Soman noted that the profile picture emblem, while mainly a visual cue, helps users and their loved ones feel safer. It’s something that “women can be able to show that they have this,” Soman said on a call. In India, many women have families who are concerned about their photos being misused, and the guard can serve as a sort of reassurance that their photos are safe.

What is not obvious from such a guard is that the photos can still be misused quite easily. Screen captures, for example, are virtually impossible to fully prevent on desktop or the mobile web.

To promote the feature, Soman said Facebook will be using video ads as well as translate the instructions for the feature in every local language in the country.

The new features, particularly the emblem that signifies your profile pic is protected, may strike some as more “security theater” than a truly impactful change. It’s not clear whether the tools will make Facebook a truly safer experience for women in India. However, they are designed to make it feel that way. The profile picture guard or design may deter some people, but a motivated abuser has to do very little to get around it.

A more impactful feature might be allowing profile pictures to have the same visibility controls as other photos, i.e. the show up just for your friends or friends of friends, with an anonymous pic showing up publicly.

While these features are small, this is the beginning of the team’s dedicated efforts that they hope to expand based on lessons learned with this tool, Soman said. That being said, the issue is a complicated one and it’s good to Facebook addressing it. The country is Facebook’s largest growing market and will be a key driver as it speeds toward the 2-billion-user mark.


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