Facebook recognizes your face, but what about your privacy?

By Erika Batista

So today the news broke out that Facebook turned off their ill-famed facial recognition feature, otherwise known as “tag suggest”, in Europe. Almost simultaneously, other news revealed the social networking giant is rolling out new features that allow users to view and delete their search history. My husband and I had a brief discussion on the topic of privacy and data protection, and unlike most times, we found ourselves surprised to have very opposite points of view. So I decided to write about it, mostly to illustrate my opinion and hopefully start an interesting discussion.

As a lawyer and a lover of liberty, my first reaction is to reject the idea of a facial recognition system altogether. Just imagine all the implications for the right to privacy of having a giant database out there with enough information to locate you, even in a crowd, anywhere in the world.

While this may sound like a promising tool for the prevention of terrorism and tracking down of criminals, results actually show otherwise. Indeed, it was reported that the Tampa Police Department stopped its use after the technology generated hundreds of false positives, but not a single arrest. That just means the technology isn’t good enough yet, though.

In my opinion, facial recognition can be downright creepy. The other day while uploading an album from a recent museum visit, I was asked to identify the “people” in a photo, which were actually deteriorated statues from the 12th century. Another time, Facebook suggested a tag of my brother on a picture of me. Ew.

A bit more seriously, the relevant question here is what are the actual risks that users face? What exactly are we protecting here?

Before addressing this question, a little history:

In 1980, the OECD promoted guidelines for the protection of personal data. Accordingly, there are several principles that should be respected if handling personal data. They basically say that you should know when your data is being collected, what for, and that it should not be used for anything other than the stated purpose. Other principles cover security, disclosure, access and accountability.

That sounds like poetry to my lawyer ears, but they were merely suggestions. So, how many states did actually implement these guidelines? Yes, you guessed right. Zero.

Recently we’ve had more honest efforts, and as of 1998 every European country has its own data protection legislation in accordance with a European directive that was issued on the topic. As for the United States, it’s been more of a trial and error process. Despite the existence of some regulation there is an overall tendency to promote self-regulation among the incumbent entities, leaving behind a lot of loopholes. But how well does this self-regulation work?

So far, in the case of social media, not bad. Besides the protection that the law grants, you can count on the services themselves for fine-tuning. Google’s social networking service G+ had its momentum when it announced that it would feature new privacy and sharing controls, which Facebook lacked and swiftly adopted in order to keep users from fleeing. Despite allegations of social network fatigue, the market has proven itself capable of adapting to (some) user needs.

So, going back to our question, what exactly are we protecting?

Without going completely “conspiracy theorist” on you, one of the arguments most often used against facial recognition is the fear that it could lead to a “mass surveillance society”. Yoann argued at this point, validly, that it is not the government we are dealing with. It’s just Facebook. Right?

Wrong. The thought of a mass surveillance state might seem like a far-fetched idea to you, but it’s actually notIndeed, we hear everywhere about scandals regarding different types of privacy-invasive acts such as tapped conversations, misrepresentations about the use of tracking cookies (even when users expressly disabled them, Google still kept using them and gladly paid the fine that followed), the government officials using twitter to track down supposed threats, the police being allowed access to social media accounts without a warrant, and access being granted to these accounts without even notifying the user, just to mention a few.

Again, my husband (acceptably) argues: if you don’t want something to be known, just don’t share it. But asking myself each and every time before hitting that “post” button “Could this content seem in any way incriminating?” is borderline psychopathic behavior.

The ramifications don’t limit themselves to police activity, of course. Information obtained through social media can and has been used during the processing of insurance claims, the assessment of a candidate for a job (there are companies created exclusively for this purpose), not to mention the intrusive commercial applications of facial recognition systems, among many others.

With recent Facebook updates it is easier to control how your data is shared with the public. However, there is still certain information that is always public (name, profile and cover pictures, network, gender, username and ID). The alternative Facebook offers you? To delete your account.

Then another question arises: Who are Facebook’s real customers? Sure, they want to create a good product so that we can keep using it, the same way a farmer keeps feeding his cows so that they will stay alive and produce milk. This has been discussed before, many, many, times. Facebook wants you to keep providing information so that they can keep monetizing it and getting better at it. For the moment, most of their profit comes from advertisers, but who is to say it will be that way forever? Users certainly don’t have a say in whom Facebook can or can’t do business with.

Yet the use of social media remains safe “enough” that most of us don’t even consider these issues. After all, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner concluded their report on Facebook with a positive note. However, that still means that your information could be revealed (according to Facebook’s own guidelines) to public authorities in accordance with the law, which in certain cases does not grant much protection.

Moreover, there may be a brighter side to the story. There are some software that include this feature such as Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto, for example, which allow users to organize their photo library by tagging recognized people on photos. This represents a practical advantage for the consumer, and in the future there will probably be many exciting and non-intrusive developments to this technology. Facebook themselves expressed that they would revisit facial recognition when they figure out how to keep the legislators happy (after all, they did invest millions acquiring a face recognition tech company this year).

So, ultimately, by providing Facebook with a vast amount of information we are trusting that they will not use it for any purpose other than those annoying and increasingly accurate ads. Until a breach of that trust occurs, this matter and the minor incidents will continue to be overlooked.

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154 Responses to Facebook recognizes your face, but what about your privacy?

  1. writecrites says:

    What worries me most about facial-recognition use by authorities (via Facebook or other sites) is mistaken identity. If you happen to look similar to a wanted criminal, your life could be turned upside down. A tv show, Person of Interest, imagines a machine that can recognize all of us (in a crowd, in the street, etc.). Seems like we’re already there.

  2. FACE RECOGNITION HAS BEEN USED FOR AWHILE NOW!

  3. True. I really hope all social sites and really the whole interweb can stop tracking your indentity and such.

    • The sad truth is that we lost our identities long ago. All these facets are part of modern life. You must not fear it, just know it. We must believe in our fellow man/woman, who will watch our backs, most of the time. We need to be watched to protect us from the evil elements when alone. Ironic!

  4. Sorry to sound so – anti – but I just can’t get into facebook. In any way, shape or form. I’ve tried, but I just can’t keep up with it. Not to mention, I’m not a big fan of the new timeline thingie. I guess I’m just not so hip as I used to be!

  5. Alexi Sweeting says:

    Reblogged this on Sweeting Hub Pages.

  6. yaeecrew says:

    Not comfortable with facebook, not even a little bit-Too invasive-personal and there are plenty of people with no backgrounds who can adopt one instantly and be you right on the spot.

  7. about2rock says:

    Thanks for clearing up a minor mystery… I kept getting notices saying “I” had been tagged in various photos on others’ FB pages, but when I went to see them, they were of my sister!!!

  8. “They” monitor us through all media, whenever they want. I think that overseas is also monitoring all of us, for other reasons and maybe more sinister reasons. If indeed there may be only 3 months left on this planet, just say….then what is the best way to simply live peacefully?

  9. Blown says:

    And Facebook reaching their first billion users just announced they will start working intensively to offer (that is, sell) access to their user database to third parties companies…
    Personally I decided it was high time I faked my identity on Facebook and removed any personal information… I don’t like to be cataloged. We all know where it leads.
    Google already knows too much about us, we don’t need Facebook on top of it.

  10. ivanmello says:

    Reblogged this on Criatividade e Inovação todo diae comentado:
    Muito bom este post sobre o Facebook e o reconhecimento de rostos

  11. This gives new depth of appreciation and a ’1984′ scope to “the Dept. of TIA (Total Informational Awareness).” See if we don’t have one already… look it up.

  12. beyondpaths says:

    You bring up some interesting points of view, but as @Kristinalovessunshine responded, it is a necessary evil and it is ironic. OR…has there been too much emphasis on watching the general population, but not enough on those that need to be watched. if we are trying to justify this technology by telling ourselves that it can be used to catch the criminals, then why are the posted statistics so low? The “criminals” aren’t going to show up most of the time because they shroud themselves in darkness so they are not recognized for their acts.

  13. beyondpaths says:

    Reblogged this on PATHS and commented:
    This blog questions facial recognition technology and its purpose in the world. Will the US follow Europe’s lead?

  14. charisse3008 says:

    I feel uncomfortable with facial tagging too. So when i share pictures, i make sure never to tag faces. I f i had to tag, i just tag the ornaments in the background.

  15. Evelyn says:

    Facebook has made blunder after blunder after blunder and still people continue to support it as though it ever had any credibility for viable social media. I’m not sure those three words should even be put together but I know Facebook does not deserve to be credited with that ‘tag’. As far as face recognition goes Kristina got it right the first time. A true web presence involves your integrity so why not use the media who takes your security as seriously as you would for yourself? Good entry. Very thought provoking.

    • It is sad with facial recognition being used by every agency. I actually think that all the android phones, xboxes, and everything that has a camera pointing at you, may also being taking your face and voice, anytime they want, and particularly your buying habits. We cannot worry about it anymore.

  16. I’m happy to be my real self through the written word, but I get very wary once voice or image comes into it. A picture paints a thousand words, of course, but how many of those can be misinterpreted? There’s a reason I don’t like using my real photo as any profile picture. There’s the whole “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” brigade, and to them I say – if you claim to have NOTHING you’ve said or done or been that you would prefer not to be shared with EVERYONE (family, spouses, potential future employers), you’re either truly shameless or a liar.

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