Is Facial Recognition Tech a Privacy Threat? Should Facebook Stop Using It?

By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Facial recognition tech is not a new technology but it has somewhat prominently appeared in the news recently as Facebook decided to not make the Moments photo app available in Europe after regulators required the social media company to provide users the option to activate or deactivate its facial recognition feature. Facebook said that there is no timeline or clear plan as to whether such an opt-out feature will be made available so the logical consequence would have to be the non-availability of the app in Europe.

Facial Recognition Tech – An Overview

What really is facial recognition technology? Aside from the obvious connotation, there are things that make this technology something that would worry cautious private individuals and even government agencies. Facial recognition technology is mainly a computer system that automatically identifies or verifies a person depicted on a digital image or a frame in a video. What it does is to compare certain facial features in an image with those in a database.

There are three main techniques for facial recognition namely traditional, three-dimensional, and skin texture analysis. The traditional technique extracts highlight or standout features on the face using an algorithm that analyzes positions, shapes, and sizes. The extracted information is then compared to a database to find a match. The three-dimensional method, on the other hand, employs 3D sensors to obtain information about the face. This method tends to produce more accurate results since it addresses the problem of lighting differences although it is costlier and more complicated to conduct. Thirdly, the skin texture analysis technique focuses on the dermal surface’s distinguishing features, as captured in standard digital images. This technique interprets the unique lines, spots, patterns, and other visible features of a person’s skin as a mathematical space that can be subjected to a computerized analysis.

Facial recognition tech is mostly used for security purposes. It has successfully prevented crimes and even sent criminals to jail. Many governments that employ advanced security technologies are already familiar with facial recognition systems. However, there are less advanced (in comparison to security use) deployments of facial recognition tech used in other settings like in the case of focus hunting for cameras, tagging people on social media, and in organizing photos by identifying the people in them.

By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s the Deal with Facebook’s Facial Recognition?

As reported more than a year ago, Facebook developed a facial recognition technology that is supposed to be advanced and more accurate. However, there was no word on how Facebook intended to use it. This year, it appears Facebook is ready to deploy the tech through its Moments photo sharing app. The app is supposed to be smarter thanks to the integration of Facebook’s advanced facial recognition tech. With the facial recognition feature, the app can automatically organize photos based on the people identified in them and when they were taken. The app then makes it easier to share the photos by identifying friends who may want to have copies of the photos.

Some see this as a convenient feature but others think that it poses a security or risk. Irish data regulators, in particular, said that users ought to be provided the choice to opt in or out of the feature. Similarly, the privacy commissioner of Canada said that there’s a significant privacy concern in the fact that the social media giant has the ability to combine data pertaining to facial biometrics with a vast collection of information about Facebook users. It can be dangerous entrusting all of these information to a private company or organization.

By Marcus Quigmire from Florida, USA (facebook  Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marcus Quigmire from Florida, USA (facebook Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Are the Privacy Concerns Justified?

In general, it can indeed be bothersome having networked cameras and computers that are capable of identifying and spying on you. More advanced high resolution cameras paired with accurate facial recognition technology can make it easy for governments or even private organizations to subject people to continuous monitoring with complete documentation.

Privacy is a fundamental right in most places of the world. In Europe, this is something taken very seriously that, as mentioned earlier, Facebook decided not to offer the Moments app because the company couldn’t incorporate the opt-in facility required by regulators. In the United Kingdom, through the Data Protection Act, it is legally mandated for those who make use of camera surveillance systems to provide information or notification about the surveillance even when it is done in a public area.

It can be said that indeed the privacy concerns are justified. However, in the context of Facebook’s decision to not offer an app because of an issue in facial recognition tech, the debate is still ongoing. There are legitimate worries over Facebook’s possible misuse of the data being compiled but there are no solid proofs of actual scenarios wherein privacy is severely harmed. If Facebook users are really worried about facial recognition technology jeopardizing their privacy, there’s always the simple solution of not installing the Moments app or ditching Facebook altogether.