Facial recognition and its impact on the data privacy wars

facial recognition
Image credit | metamorworks

Recently Facebook settled a facial recognition lawsuit for $550 million with the state of Illinois. This was because Facebook contravened the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. This act says that companies cannot use biometric information without people’s ‘explicit consent’.

Quite right too, say the privacy campaigners. ‘Now that we the People have rumbled you the Commercial Network, you can no longer sell our data’.

In other, completely different, news, Moscow now uses facial recognition tools, well, pretty much everywhere, to keep the streets safe. The UK, too, one of the leaders in both data privacy (and data scandals) is set to use facial recognition in public places. This is to find individuals who are wanted for ‘serious and violent crimes.’

The question becomes ‘when is it OK for Governments to process facial recognition data and not OK for companies to do the same thing’?

The common sense answer is ‘when it stops bad guys doing bad things’. The trouble with that is this issue is always going to be about definitions and data leaks.

If Facebook is doing it ‘without our explicit consent’ (which is another ‘no-one reads the terms and conditions’ issue) in order to make money that is bad.

If a Government is doing to catch bad guys that is good.

This works, except when other bad guys scrape the information off social media sites, or break into a company’s database and sell the information to Governments or third parties. Which they have done and will continue to do.

Facial recognition is a big issue in the privacy wars partly because our face is one of the things that is truly ours. We wake up, we look in the mirror and it is our face that stares back at us. Validation that we are still us. Our data is one step removed and one step less sensitive.

The irony (of which there are several, in fact) is that if companies such as Facebook and Google had ‘sold’ data analysis properly we would not be discussing this issue. The sales pitch would be ‘if you let us analyse some data then your experience will be more relevant and enjoyable and you will understand the value’. Sadly, they decided to sell it without our ‘explicit consent’ because we didn’t read the whole four volumes of the terms and conditions.

The other irony is that while the state of Illinois might win a lawsuit and set themselves up as champions of privacy, as soon as the law is passed that allows facial recognition on the streets of Chicago, you can bet your Prius that they will go very quiet – and comply.

The other, other, other irony is that Facebook settled the half a billion dollar lawsuit because, compared to the $7.3 billion profit it made in one quarter last year, it was, to be frank, a distraction.

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