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Facial Recognition At Facebook: New Patents, New EU Privacy Laws, And Concerns For Offline Shoppers

Facebook logo Some Facebook users know that the social networking site tracks them both on and off (e.g., signed into, not signed into) the service. Many online users know that Facebook tracks both users and non-users around the internet. Recent developments indicate that the service intends to track people offline, too. The New York Times reported that Facebook:

"... has applied for various patents, many of them still under consideration... One patent application, published last November, described a system that could detect consumers within [brick-and-mortar retail] stores and match those shoppers’ faces with their social networking profiles. Then it could analyze the characteristics of their friends, and other details, using the information to determine a “trust level” for each shopper. Consumers deemed “trustworthy” could be eligible for special treatment, like automatic access to merchandise in locked display cases... Another Facebook patent filing described how cameras near checkout counters could capture shoppers’ faces, match them with their social networking profiles and then send purchase confirmation messages to their phones."

Some important background. First, the usage of surveillance cameras in retail stores is not new. What is new is the scope and accuracy of the technology. In 2012, we first learned about smart mannequins in retail stores. In 2013, we learned about the five ways retail stores spy on shoppers. In 2015, we learned more about tracking of shoppers by retail stores using WiFi connections. In 2018, some smart mannequins are used in the healthcare industry.

Second, Facebook's facial recognition technology scans images uploaded by users, and then allows users identified to accept or decline labels with their name for each photo. Each Facebook user can adjust their privacy settings to enable or disable the adding of their name label to photos. However:

"Facial recognition works by scanning faces of unnamed people in photos or videos and then matching codes of their facial patterns to those in a database of named people... The technology can be used to remotely identify people by name without their knowledge or consent. While proponents view it as a high-tech tool to catch criminals... critics said people cannot actually control the technology — because Facebook scans their faces in photos even when their facial recognition setting is turned off... Rochelle Nadhiri, a Facebook spokeswoman, said its system analyzes faces in users’ photos to check whether they match with those who have their facial recognition setting turned on. If the system cannot find a match, she said, it does not identify the unknown face and immediately deletes the facial data."

Simply stated: Facebook maintains a perpetual database of photos (and videos) with names attached, so it can perform the matching and not display name labels for users who declined and/or disabled the display of name labels in photos (videos). To learn more about facial recognition at Facebook, visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) site.

Third, other tech companies besides Facebook use facial recognition technology:

"... Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have filed facial recognition patent applications. In May, civil liberties groups criticized Amazon for marketing facial technology, called Rekognition, to police departments. The company has said the technology has also been used to find lost children at amusement parks and other purposes..."

You may remember, earlier in 2017 Apple launched its iPhone X with Face ID feature for users to unlock their phones. Fourth, since Facebook operates globally it must respond to new laws in certain regions:

"In the European Union, a tough new data protection law called the General Data Protection Regulation now requires companies to obtain explicit and “freely given” consent before collecting sensitive information like facial data. Some critics, including the former government official who originally proposed the new law, contend that Facebook tried to improperly influence user consent by promoting facial recognition as an identity protection tool."

Perhaps, you find the above issues troubling. I do. If my facial image will be captured, archived, tracked by brick-and-mortar stores, and then matched and merged with my online usage, then I want some type of notice before entering a brick-and-mortar store -- just as websites present privacy and terms-of-use policies. Otherwise, there is no notice nor informed consent by shoppers at brick-and-mortar stores.

So, is facial recognition a threat, a protection tool, or both? What are your opinions?

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