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June 12, 2011 / David Woodford

My objections to Facebook’s facial recognition

My instinctive reaction to the facial recognition feature recently released internationally by Facebook was that it was bad and an invasion of privacy. However, it was only after thinking about it that I realised what it was I was uncomfortable with and the realisation that no privacy settings on the site could ever protect me from it.

There is a privacy issue but, it is more subtle than Facebook telling your friends what you look like. It seems odd that people consider the tagging suggestions as a privacy issue. I don’t really have a problem with my friends knowing what I look like.

The problem is that Facebook now has the power to determine what you look like. The software was been developed and it seems to work so there is no going back as you cant undo the development. Of course, facial recognition software has been developed and used before but the problem with Facebook is that the vast majority of people in the developed world have several photos of themselves on the site and hence, there is a good chance that if you have a photo of someone Facebook would be able to tell you who that person is.

For example since a government could force Facebook to lets it’s intelligence services use the software to track people. When you consider the number of CCTV cameras it would be easy for them to find out where everyone has been at any point in time. This is danger is increased because Facebook is based in the US which is not only a government I am unable to influence but also a government which has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for human rights.

However, this intentional tracking of everyone by a government isn’t the biggest immediate concern as it would be unlikely any government could afford to do so. The bigger danger is that the software could be used for advertising purposes. How easy would it be for advertisers to install cameras on their billboards which connect to Facebook to determine who you are so that they could show you “relevant” advertisements. Or maybe cafes will have a camera above the door so you can be “checked in” automatically when you enter.

The problem with this is that not only will these large (profit driven) organisations (often with offices outside the UK) be able to track you but the data will have been collected. Once the data has been collected  we know that government’s find the temptations to access it and use it in ways that people like me object to are extremely great. A government which can’t justify collecting the data itself will find it a lot easier to access the data that someone else has already collected and it would be much harder for members of the public to know whether or not the data collected about them has been accessed in this way.

The problem with the suggestions of friends to tag in photos is not that my friends might find out private information about me, such as what I look like. It is that Facebook has already developed software and has created a collection of photos (without the knowlage that they could be used in conjunction with such a piece of software) that allows it to identify if I am in any given photo. There are no privacy settings that Facebook could provide that would make me feel safe from abuse of this software because the software already exists and Facebook or a third party (including a Government) are capable of using it or forcing Facebook to use it on their behalf.


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