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  • Dean Smith

Facebook Inc. and Google Engulfed in Legal Battles for Use of Facial Recognition

Ever wonder how Facebook is immediately able to identify your face and the faces of others when uploading a photo? Maybe you’ve noticed, maybe you haven’t. But facial recognition is real, and Facebook Inc. and Google use it to their advantage by amassing biometric data and profiting from selling users’ viewing histories to advertisers.

So what is biometric data? To put it simply, Wikipedia explains it as “the distinctive, measurable characteristics used to label and describe individuals. Biometric identifiers are often categorized as physiological versus behaviors characteristics. Physiological characteristics are related to the shape of the body. Examples include, but are not limited to fingerprints, palm veins, face recognition, DNA, palm print, hand geometry, iris recognition, retina and odor/scent. Behavioral characteristics are related to the pattern of behavior of a person, including but not limited to typing rhythm, gait, and voice.”

Here’s how it works according to Joel Rosenblatt of Insurance Journal:

“Facebook encourages users to ‘tag’ people in photographs they upload in their personal posts and the social network stores the collected information. The company uses a program it calls DeepFace to match other photos of a person. Alphabet Inc.’s cloud-based Google Photos service uses similar technology.”

Just how accurate is Facebook’s facial recognition technology, you wonder? Well, DeepFace’s research shows that the technology recognizes faces with an accuracy rate of 97.35 percent in comparison to a 97.5 percent accuracy rate for humans (including mothers). Facebook recognizes your face almost as easily as your mother. Let that sink in.

The article further notes that “Biometric identifiers are a key way to link together information about people,” said Marc Rotenberg, President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Facebook has “cleverly got its users to improve the accuracy of its own database.” The data can be sold, without consent, to retailers or turned over to law enforcement.

And again, we are faced (no pun intended) with a privacy issue. Privacy advocates recognize the pattern and wish to block Facebook and Google from using the technology to collect biometric data for profit, even citing that the collection of personal data leaves us vulnerable to hackers, thieves, identity theft, etc.

However, Rosenblatt notes that, “The companies insist that gathering data on what you look like isn’t against the law, even without your permission.”

As of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a “concrete injury” standard for privacy suits. And it is no coincidence that the world’s largest social network and the world’s largest search engine are front and center to get served. What remains to be seen is whether or not judges will side with Facebook and Google, as Facebook representatives argue that, “the users haven’t suffered a concrete injury such as physical harm, loss of money or property; or even a denial of their right to free speech or religion,” and so the lawsuit should be thrown out.

The outcome of these cases will likely set the standard for privacy cases moving forward.

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