It May Get Harder for Companies to Capture Your Facial Recognition Data

Even Facebook is pulling back on biometric data

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook (now called Meta) is halting its use of facial recognition technology amid privacy concerns. 
  • There's a growing state-by-state movement against the use of facial recognition software and the collection of users’ biometric data without consent.
  • The federal government has moved aggressively to expand facial recognition use.
Facial recognition scanning a person up close but also several people in a crowd.

John M Lund Photography Inc / Getty Images

Computers might be keeping a little less of an eye on your face. 

Facebook (now rebranded as Meta) recently said that it's shutting down its face recognition program. The technology creates face prints of users and automatically recognizes them in uploaded photos. It's part of a growing unease with facial recognition both within tech companies and in the courts. 

"Facial recognition in public spaces should be regulated as it calls into question the assumed anonymity we all expect to enjoy in such spaces," Michael Huth, head of the department of computing at Imperial College London, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The Israeli architect and academic, Hillel Shocken, refers to this as 'intimate anonymity' when applied to urban spaces: we can choose our social and commercial interactions and otherwise remain anonymous."

Facebook With Fewer Faces?

Meta announced that it would discontinue the Facebook Face Recognition feature in the next few weeks after a long privacy battle. 

The company will stop using facial recognition algorithms to tag people in photographs and videos. It will also erase the facial recognition templates that identify users. 

"There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use," Jerome Pesenti, Meta's vice president of artificial intelligence, wrote in a company blog post. "Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate."

Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate, pointed out that Meta didn't specify why it's removing face recognition. He speculated that the company could be preemptively planning for new regulations and court precedents regarding the technology.

Growing Unease

There's a growing state-by-state movement against the use of facial recognition software and collection of users' biometric data without consent, Carey O'Connor Kolaja, CEO of AU10TIX, a company that offers automated identity intelligence, told Lifewire. 

San Francisco became the first US city to ban facial recognition software by police and other municipal departments. In contrast, in states such as Illinois, facial recognition can verify someone's identity when they open an account like a bank account if they comply with BIPA (Biometric Information Policy Act). 

"Facebook's decision to stop using facial-recognition technology on its core social media platform is fueling a renewed conversation about what role the US government should take in regulating the technology's use," Kolaja said. "Facial-recognition technology has increasingly been the focus of data privacy and civil rights concerns because of how it can be misused by governments, law enforcement, and companies."

Someone using facial recognition technology on a smart phone.

wonry / Getty Images

At the same time, the federal government has moved aggressively to expand facial recognition use for tracking its employees, criminal suspects, or Americans at large, Kolaja said. Ten federal agencies, including the Homeland Security and Justice departments, told government auditors this year that they intended to expand their face-scanning capabilities by 2023.

"We see increasing government use of the technology and plans to increase its use in many other organizations," James Hendler, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's Technology Policy Council, told Lifewire. "This is a troubling trend."

There have been proposals for federal regulation of facial recognition technology, such as the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2021. But Congress has yet to pass anything, Taylor Kay Lively, a researcher at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, told Lifewire. In the absence of federal regulation, Microsoft and Amazon announced in 2020 that they'd be halting facial recognition sales to law enforcement. IBM decided to get out of the business altogether. 

The most significant issues with facial recognition are social, not technical, privacy lawyer James J. Ward told Lifewire. 

"Do FRT systems routinely mischaracterize people of color or women?" Ward said. "Absolutely. But as worrisome, if not more, is when these flawed systems are put to use, particularly with respect to predictive systems tied to the law, credit, healthcare, housing, and insurance."

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