Face­book’s fa­cial recog­ni­tion tools push is rais­ing pri­vacy con­cerns

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY NATASHA SINGER New York Times

When Face­book rolled out fa­cial recog­ni­tion tools in the Euro­pean Union this year, it pro­moted the tech­nol­ogy as a way to help peo­ple safe­guard their on­line iden­ti­ties.

“Face recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy al­lows us to help pro­tect you from a stranger us­ing your photo to im­per­son­ate you,” Face­book told its users in Europe.

It was a risky move by the so­cial net­work. Six years ear­lier, it had de­ac­ti­vated the tech­nol­ogy in Europe af­ter reg­u­la­tors there raised ques­tions about its fa­cial recog­ni­tion con­sent sys­tem. Now, Face­book was rein­tro­duc­ing the ser­vice as part of an up­date of its user per­mis­sion process in Europe.

Yet Face­book is tak­ing a huge rep­u­ta­tional risk in ag­gres­sively push­ing the tech­nol­ogy at a time when its data-min­ing prac­tices are un­der height­ened scru­tiny in the United States and Europe. Al­ready, more than a dozen pri­vacy and con­sumer groups, and at least a few of­fi­cials, ar­gue that the com­pany’s use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion has vi­o­lated peo­ple’s pri­vacy by not ob­tain­ing ap­pro­pri­ate user con­sent.

The com­plaints add to the bar­rage of crit­i­cism fac­ing the Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant over its han­dling of users’ per­sonal de­tails. Sev­eral U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies are in­ves­ti­gat­ing Face­book’s re­sponse to the har­vest­ing of its users’ data by Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, a po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm.

Face­book’s push to spread fa­cial recog­ni­tion also puts the com­pany at the cen­ter of a broader and in­ten­si­fy­ing de­bate about how the pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy should be han­dled. The tech­nol­ogy can be used to re­motely iden­tify peo­ple by name with­out their knowl­edge or con­sent. While pro­po­nents view it as a high­tech tool to catch crim­i­nals, civil lib­er­ties ex­perts warn it could en­able a mass sur­veil­lance sys­tem.

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion works by scan­ning faces of un­named peo­ple in pho­tos or videos and then match­ing codes of their fa­cial pat­terns to those in a data­base of named peo­ple. Face­book has said that users are in charge of that process, telling them: “You con­trol face recog­ni­tion.”

But crit­ics said peo­ple can­not ac­tu­ally con­trol the tech­nol­ogy – be­cause Face­book scans their faces in pho­tos even when their fa­cial recog­ni­tion set­ting is turned off.

“Face­book tries to ex­plain their prac­tices in ways that make Face­book look like the good guy, that they are some­how pro­tect­ing your pri­vacy,” said Jennifer Lynch, a se­nior staff at­tor­ney with the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, a dig­i­tal rights group. “But it doesn’t get at the fact that they are scan­ning ev­ery photo.”

Rochelle Nad­hiri, a Face­book spokes­woman, said its sys­tem an­a­lyzes faces in users’ pho­tos to check whether they match with those who have their fa­cial recog­ni­tion set­ting turned on. If the sys­tem can­not find a match, she said, it does not iden­tify the un­known face and im­me­di­ately deletes the fa­cial data.

At the heart of the is­sue is Face­book’s ap­proach to user con­sent.

In the Euro­pean Union, a tough new data pro­tec­tion law called the Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion now re­quires com­pa­nies to ob­tain ex­plicit and “freely given” con­sent be­fore col­lect­ing sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion like fa­cial data. Some crit­ics, in­clud­ing the for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who orig­i­nally pro­posed the new law, con­tend that Face­book tried to im­prop­erly in­flu­ence user con­sent by pro­mot­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion as an iden­tity pro­tec­tion tool.

“Face­book is some­how threat­en­ing me that, if I do not buy into face recog­ni­tion, I will be in danger,” said Vi­viane Red­ing, the for­mer jus­tice com­mis­sioner of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion who is now a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. “It goes com­pletely against the Euro­pean law be­cause it tries to ma­nip­u­late con­sent.”

Euro­pean reg­u­la­tors also have con­cerns about Face­book’s fa­cial recog­ni­tion prac­tices. In Ire­land, where Face­book’s in­ter­na­tional head­quar­ters are, a spokes­woman for the Data Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sion said reg­u­la­tors “have put a num­ber of spe­cific queries to Face­book in re­spect of this tech­nol­ogy.” Reg­u­la­tors were as­sess­ing Face­book’s re­sponses, she said.

In the United States, Face­book is fight­ing a law­suit brought by Illi­nois res­i­dents claim­ing the com­pany’s face recog­ni­tion prac­tices vi­o­lated a state pri­vacy law. Dam­ages in the case, cer­ti­fied as a class ac­tion in April, could amount to bil­lions of dol­lars. In May, an ap­peals court granted Face­book’s re­quest to de­lay the trial and re­view the class cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or­der.

Nikki Sokol, as­so­ciate gen­eral coun­sel at Face­book, said in a state­ment, “This law­suit is with­out merit and we will de­fend our­selves vig­or­ously.”

Sep­a­rately, pri­vacy and con­sumer groups lodged a com­plaint with the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion in April say­ing Face­book added fa­cial recog­ni­tion ser­vices, like the fea­ture to help iden­tify im­per­son­ators, with­out ob­tain­ing prior con­sent from peo­ple be­fore turn­ing it on. The groups ar­gued that Face­book vi­o­lated a 2011 con­sent de­cree that pro­hibits it from de­cep­tive pri­vacy prac­tices.

“Face­book rou­tinely makes mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions to in­duce con­sumers to adopt wider and more per­va­sive uses of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy,” the com­plaint said.

Nad­hiri said Face­book had de­signed its con­sent process to com­ply with the new Euro­pean lawand had pre­viewed its ap­proach with Euro­pean reg­u­la­tors. As to the pri­vacy groups’ com­plaint, she said the so­cial net­work had no­ti­fied users about ex­panded fa­cial recog­ni­tion ser­vices.

“We pro­vide clear in­for­ma­tion to peo­ple about how we use face recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy,” Nad­hiri wrote in an email. The com­pany’s re­cently up­dated pri­vacy sec­tion, she added, “shows peo­ple how the set­ting works in sim­ple lan­guage.”

Face­book is hardly the only tech gi­ant to em­brace fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. Over the last few years, Ama­zon, Ap­ple, Face­book, Google and Mi­crosoft have filed fa­cial recog­ni­tion patent ap­pli­ca­tions.

In May, civil lib­er­ties groups crit­i­cized Ama­zon for mar­ket­ing fa­cial tech­nol­ogy, called Rekog­ni­tion, to po­lice de­part­ments. The com­pany has said the tech­nol­ogy has also been used to find lost chil­dren at amuse­ment parks and other pur­poses. (The New York Times has also used Ama­zon’s tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing for the re­cent royal wed­ding.)


Face­book is work­ing to spread its face-match­ing tools even as it faces height­ened scru­tiny from reg­u­la­tors and leg­is­la­tors in Europe and North Amer­ica.

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