FB data deletion: PR spin or a privacy win?

Thursday, 04 November, 2021

FB data deletion: PR spin or a privacy win?

Facebook has announced it will shut down its facial recognition system and delete the face prints of more than one billion people.

In a lengthy blog post explaining the move, Jerome Pesenti, VP of Artificial Intelligence at Meta, said it is part of a company-wide initiative to limit the use of the technology in its products.

According to Pesenti, “the many specific instances where facial recognition can be helpful need to be weighed against growing concerns about the use of this technology as a whole. 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. Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

It follows ongoing robust debate around user privacy, a recent significant increase in scrutiny arising from leaked internal documents and the company’s desire to visibly distance itself from negative perceptions via a decision to rebrand as Meta.

Professor Mark Andrejevic from Monash University’s Faculty of Arts, Data Futures Institute says the move has two sides.

“On one level this is a PR gesture — Facebook has much more invasive information about people than their faces. But as a PR move it’s still an important one as it highlights the real public concern people have about the development of facial recognition technology,” Andrejevic said.

Pesenti says the company still sees value in the technology in terms of identity verification and fraud prevention. Meta will continue working on face recognition technology to produce products that empower the user to decide how their face is used, rather than the generalised opt-in formerly employed. All previously held data will be destroyed, something Andrejevic says is a win for anyone with privacy concerns.

“The destruction of the face prints is significant. This is a biometric database that, if breached, would amount to a huge event in terms of the release of biometric data. It’s rare that companies whose business is data, destroy such a large and potentially powerful database.

“For users this means that a massive data set that includes their biometric data has been destroyed. It’s a small win for control over their personal data. In terms of user experience it means a return to manual tagging for those who opted in to the facial recognition system,” he said.

The timing however, can’t be disregarded. With the company facing increasing external pressure over recent months, some positive publicity would be a welcome reprieve.

“It is difficult not to see this move as an attempt to shift the tenor of the discussion about Facebook based on recent revelations about the spread of misinformation, impact of Instagram on teens, etc. It also anticipates impending tighter restrictions on the collection and use of biometric data as envisioned by the EU and elsewhere.”

Andrejevic says public sentiment would also be a significant factor guiding the move away from invasive implementation of the technology.

“Research we did in Australia shows that people have much lower trust in private sector companies using facial recognition technology than public authorities. They also do not support the technology being used for marketing purposes. This move reinforces growing public concern about the technology, which is systematically being deployed for a growing range of uses,” he said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/peshkova

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