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Facebook announces facial recognition for Canadian users - but here's what to consider first

by Maham Abedi (feat. Tom Keenan)

Global News
April 18, 2018

Facebook — still dealing with the Cambridge Analytica data scandal — has announced it will roll out facial recognition features for users in Canada and the European Union.

The social media giant announced in a press release that the feature, already available in most parts of the world, will soon be an option for Canadians. No timeline has been given on when it will be available.

Facebook billed its facial recognition software as needed to help increase privacy on the website.

“Our face recognition features help protect your privacy and improve your experiences,” the press release read.

It explained that it could detect if someone else is using someone else’s image as their profile photo. The feature also enables Facebook to suggest friends to tag in videos and photos.

But the company assures that turning the feature on is “entirely optional” for those who don’t want Facebook to memorize their facial features. Users can opt in or out of the feature.

How does it work?

In a December 2017 blog post, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, explained how the technology works.

“When you have face recognition enabled, our technology analyzes the pixels in photos you’re already tagged in and generates a string of numbers we call a template,” the post read. “When photos and videos are uploaded to our systems, we compare those images to the template.”

Thomas Keenan, a University of Calgary computer science professor and the author of book Technocreep, said that essentially means Facebook will give each face in its database a number.

“They turn your face into a number, so I would suggest that number is going to be more significant than your social number or your credit card number, because your face’s number is something that’s very difficult to change,” Keenan told Global News.

“It can be used for all kinds of purposes.”

Is this really about privacy?

While Facebook says the facial recognition feature is largely about improving security, Keenan says realistically, this is only a small part of its function.

“Facebook makes more money based upon the richness of the information they have about you. So the more photos that they know you’re in, the more valuable you are to them,” he said.

The professor added that instances of stolen photos do occur on social media, but are not as big a problem as it may seem from Facebook’s statement.

“It’s a small thing compared to the invasiveness of having Facebook facial recognition tracking you, which is essentially what it’s doing — it’s looking at all photos posted on Facebook and looking for you,” Keenan said.

Facebook faces pushback on facial recognition

Facebook is dealing with a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. over its facial recognition technology, with users alleging that the social network unlawfully used it on photos without permission.

A U.S. federal judge ruled on Monday that the lawsuit will go through. The company said it is reviewing the ruling.

“We continue to believe the case has no merit and will defend ourselves vigorously,” Facebook said in a statement.

Opt-in or opt-out?

Keenan says that Facebook users who like to be tagged in photos may enjoy the facial recognition feature — but he urges caution.

“One thing to think about here is your face can give away a lot about you,” he explained.

He also noted that many technology experts he knows have voiced reluctance over Facebook facial recognition, and that means regular folks should probably feel the same way.

Instead of allowing Facebook to have more access to your information, Keenan suggested users take heed of what the company also knows, and try to minimize it.

“I would tell people to err on the side of caution with giving out your face,” he said. “Maybe what you want to do is not allow facial tagging, and cut back on how many people you are related to on Facebook, and look at how many of those friends are really friends that you know.”


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