The Price of Facial Recognition

Last week Facebook settled a facial recognition lawsuit for $550 million. The lawsuit involved the lack of control and privacy with Facebook’s Tag Suggestions feature (i.e., suggests tags (names) for people in photos you post) and how it potentially violated Illinois’s biometric privacy law. The privacy law protects consumers from having facial scans taken without their knowledge or consent.

According to the help pages in Facebook, the Tag Suggestion (formerly Face Recognition setting) works by analyzing photos/videos that you’re in to create a template of your face. For example your profile picture and any pictures you’ve been identified in by friends or family. This template is then used as a comparison against new images posted to see if there is a match.

Although I have no evidence of how Facebook perfected their facial recognition templates, I’ve always suspected that they convinced their users to unknowingly train the facial recognition program, for free! Every time a user tags photos with names, this could have been potentially training Facebook’s facial recognition program to create the templates.

The $550 million payout was for a class action lawsuit, so it’s unclear how much each individual will receive. When I read about the settlement, I couldn’t help but wonder how does one put a price on the cost of facial recognition and possible violations associated with it? How can harm be proved? And if you were harmed, how can you quantify that in dollars? For example, what if you attract unwanted attention. Costs associated with getting a new number or installing an improved security system are easily verified, but what about the price of losing your sense of security?

The right to remain anonymous in public is something we’ve always taken for granted, or at least I always have. Now it seems that it can only be maintained at a price. The biggest questions to consider are, what is the price?  And who will be determining it?

It may seem like the government and corporations have all the control. However, the point of using a social network like Facebook is that it’s social. This means responsibility and control is with the users, to some extent. I can’t monitor Facebook to know when somebody posts a picture containing my face. I also can’t control with whom that person will choose to share the photo.

There will never be enough settings to compensate for all these challenges.

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