Facebook is certainly no stranger to defending its practices, especially when those practices threaten the privacy of their users. Now they are finding themselves, yet again, in a position to have to do so. Facebook employees had to defend the social media giant’s facial recognition technology, which is used to help users tag people in their online Facebook photos. While Facebook maintains that its purpose is to provide a better consumer experience, some feel that it raises privacy issues.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law met last Wednesday, led by chair Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., to speak with leading officials and experts, including members of the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to get a better sense of how this technology impacts users.
Because facial recognition technology is so precise, using unique facial measurements to accurately identify people, some feared that the aggregation of data, in conjunction with the facial recognition technology, could result in an individual’s face being connected with a slew of private information that the individual would not want out there.
Facebook’s privacy manager, Rob Sherman, went to bat for Facebook’s facial recognition technology after Facebook came under scrutiny for the fact that it was an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, feature. Sherman pointed out that the facial recognition technology is only used to suggest friends of the user who are already on Facebook, and that the facial database is only used internally, by Facebook.
But some point out that there always exists the possibility of Facebook changing hands, or even having a policy change. As we’ve recently mentioned, Facebook users are growing more frustrated with Facebook’s constantly changing formatting, and their apparent lack of caring about user feedback on such changes. Facebook has not proven to keep their consumer’s best interest in mind, despite their emphatically stating otherwise at the Senate Subcommittee meeting. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a talk in which he outright stated, “Our users don’t want privacy.”
Perhaps many of the fears could be allayed if facial recognition technology were regulated by the government in any way but, for now, all regulations on facial recognition technology are self-policed by the companies using it. The FTC is putting together guidelines for privacy practices, but at this point they are mere suggestions and not mandates. As Sen. Franken wrote in his comments to the FTC, “Facial recognition technology could become a powerful and positive tool for public safety and private sector innovation. The key is to ensure that strong safeguards exist for privacy and civil liberties so that the benefits of these biometric technologies aren’t outweighed by negative effects on privacy.”
Until that time, it is a stark reminder that even the most benign information about us that we allow online can end up in a collection of information attached to our photos.
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