Facebook facial recognition technologyFacial recognition technology is one of the more powerful and, sometimes, frightening aspects of the biometric technology boom that has swept the world in recent years. We’ve written a lot about various advances in this technology, from apps that let you upload a picture so you can find a person’s social media profiles to the Face ID technology debuted by Apple last year with its iPhone X. One of the pack leaders when it comes to deploying this technology has been Facebook, which debuted it in 2010 for use in assisting with the identification of people for photo tagging. Facebook facial recognition technology has only gotten savvier in the past eight years, and new developments at the tail end of 2017 show that it’s not slowing down anytime soon. What exactly is the social media network doing with your face, what are the potential risks of this technology and is it possible for you to opt out?

How does Facebook’s facial recognition technology work?

Though it’s been tweaked a lot in the past near-decade since its debut, the general way this tech works is as follows: When you upload a photo of yourself to your profile and identify it as a photo of you, the pixels will be analyzed to generate a “template” of numbers, which is then compared against all newly uploaded photos and videos you and those you’re connected to add. This comparison and analysis behind the scenes is what makes it possible for Facebook to suggest you tag certain friends in photos you upload of them — and vice versa. On Dec. 19, 2017, Facebook announced new tools which would help users manage their identity on the site by way of alerting them when there are photos uploaded which contain their face — whether they’re tagged or not.

The new tools are meant to give you control over what photos and videos of you exist on the site, allowing you to add or remove a tag from a photo (or reach out to a friend if, say, you’d like a photo taken down) as well as identify if someone uploads your photo as their profile photo. Impersonation on social media is more common than you might think, and Facebook is seeking to crack down on fake profiles this way. Of course, it’s important to note that you will only be notified about photos which are uploaded within your “audience” on Facebook — e.g., if someone with a private profile who is not your friend uploads a picture that contains you, chances are you’ll never know (assuming you’re not tagged by a mutual friend). Additionally, people who don’t have access to your posts will not be notified about their face in photos you upload (unless you change the audience setting for that photo to public). Facebook has also been working on enhancements for visually impaired users, which will help those accessing the social network with a screen reader to hear more details about the content of photos they view, including identification of people pictured.

Can you opt out of these features?

Fortunately, Facebook has made it a simple, one-step process for users to opt out of facial recognition. The one potential downside is that your friends will no longer see your name come up as a suggestion for tagging when they upload new photos that you’re in, but that might not be a bad thing for those concerned about Facebook having data on their likeness stored on its servers. To check or change your facial recognition settings, log into your Facebook account and navigate to Settings > Face Recognition. The process may vary somewhat depending on whether you’re using an app on a smartphone or tablet, or a web browser on a computer to access the site. Regardless of how you get there, once you do, it’s a simple matter of ensuring that the slider bar or drop-down is set to “No” on the Face Recognition settings tab.

Facebook Facial Recognition Settings

Turning off face recognition using Facebook on a Windows PC/Chrome browser.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s a wise idea to routinely go over your privacy settings when it comes to Facebook and any other site or app you use frequently. You might find yourself surprised just how much information you’re giving up by default.

What exactly is Facebook doing with all of this data?

Although the company has ostensibly promoted its facial recognition technology and the tools that have developed from it as beneficial to users, it also serves a purpose for Facebook’s advertising revenue — something that is not spelled out quite so clearly to the site’s users without taking a fine-tooth comb to its lengthy terms of service. As a result of the increasing use in biometric data combined with other collected user information to generate personalized advertisements, Facebook has faced plenty of scrutiny and backlash, including lawsuits across the globe. In places with stricter data privacy laws, such as Europe and Canada, Facebook facial recognition features have been disabled by the site. For example, tag suggestion was disabled for European users in 2012, and brought back in 2014 only to be used for identifying and tagging U.S. users within European users’ networks. Here in the U.S., while many state laws have loopholes or blind spots that allow biometric data to be used for advertising purposes without consumer input, some Illinois citizens are using its strict Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) to their advantage to fight back. The 2015 lawsuit filed against Facebook for alleged BIPA violations recently got some federal-level backing after a U.S. District Judge in California argued that Facebook “usurped” rights granted to Illinois citizens to say no to the use of their data in advertising.

As it is, Facebook uses the information it has gathered from scanning and storing your biometric data to present ads that potentially tie into your personal attributes — including analyzing your moods or other details that might indicate a willingness to purchase a product or service. Even more worrisome, rumors that Facebook will soon be throwing its hat into the smart home device arena with a camera-enabled device that further uses Facebook facial recognition technology to scan inhabitants for a myriad of purposes (e.g., identity verification, targeted ads, etc.) have been growing in volume. Those who are already concerned over the potential privacy risks of always-on, voice-activated speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home can probably imagine the increased risk an always-on camera in your home presents. The downside to using social networks and other services with advanced technology seems to be a forfeiture of the inherent right to privacy. When companies wrap up these features in a shiny package and present them as enhancements to people’s lives without mentioning the privacy issues on the flip-side, then it becomes a problem — especially as people naively accept the gift of technology without stopping to read the fine print.

The best solution, therefore, is to stay in the know when it comes to technology updates. There’s no shame in scrutinizing new features to look for the downsides, or exercising your right to opt out altogether. We’re here to help keep you up-to-date on what’s new in data privacy and other tech news you need to know to help keep your privacy intact online. Follow our technology blog so you don’t miss a story.