A face in a billion: Facebook to include profile pix in facial recognition database

A face in a billion: Facebook to include profile pix in facial recognition database
Facebook says it will expand its facial recognition database to include over 1 billion extra faces as it incorporates users’ profile pictures into its database, thereby increasing the scope of its existing, highly controversial technology.

The world’s largest social network made the announcement Thursday in an update to its data use policy. Facebook’s “Tag Suggest” feature already automatically recognizes “friend” faces in photo uploads to speed up the process of tagging friends, but the new adaptation will also use the facial recognition technology to identify its own users’ profile pictures.

“Our goal is to facilitate tagging so that people know when there are photos of them on our service,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, told Reuters, adding that the change would give users better control over their information.

Facebook’s existing technology identifies faces automatically by comparing them to previous tagged photographs.

Egan added that there would be an “opt out” feature, meaning that somebody’s photograph could be excluded from the facial recognition database.

The practice has already raised regulatory concerns in Europe, meaning Facebook users there will not be affected by the change – it is only for US users. Facebook was persuaded to disable its facial recognition technology across Europe earlier this year, after an investigation by privacy authorities in Germany and Ireland.

“Can I say that we will never use facial recognition technology for any other purposes? Absolutely not,” Egan said. “If we decided to use it in different ways we will continue to provide people [with] transparency about that and we will continue to provide control.”

Reuters / Dado Ruvic

Critics said that there has also been little attempt in the new update to provide greater clarity as to policies. “The company is also deliberately deleting information about specific privacy controls,” noted the New York Times, pointing out that a direct path to the possibility of opting out of endorsing adverts on friends’ pages  would no longer be on the privacy page.

The old privacy policy informed users:  “You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.” However, the changed wording assumes permission for name, profile picture and content to be used in connection with commercial content. 

"We are proposing this update as part of a settlement in a court case relating to advertising," Egan said in a statement in regards to changes in commercial use.

While not specifying which court case, it was revealed on Wednesday that Facebook will pay out $20 million in compensation to users who had their personal information shared on the website. Details of users appeared in the “sponsored stories” advertisements without their permission.

Facebook and Google (Google Plus uses similar technology) both insist that they are not participants in any program that allows the US government direct access to their computer servers, and only supply personal information upon specific request and following a review.

The update to Facebook’s technology comes as public scrutiny grows of corporate use of private data, and its sharing with governments, following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass US electronic surveillance in June. For seven years, the National Security Agency has been using a warrantless web surveillance system, PRISM, with a near-limitless ability to spy on anyone’s phone calls, e-mails, video chats, search history and more.

According to the documents leaked by Snowden, Internet giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook have been complicit in the scheme, providing the NSA with access to users' data.