Facial recognition in social media: a step too far?

Though data protection watchdogs have made it unavailable for European users, the social media mogul Facebook has introducing a sinister new feature for its American users: facial recognition technology. We take a glace at this worryingly science-fictional scenario.

The 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report is starting to look worryingly current.
The 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report is starting to look worryingly current.

Most of us are aware, at least on some level, that by using social media websites like Facebook and Twitter we play an active part in compromising our privacy.

But as has been the case with Facebook ever since Mark Zuckerberg's ubiquitous website - initially a small campus project - was first launched in 2004, the news of potentially controversial changes to their privacy policy settings tends to rouse the collective crowd of Facebook users from their complacent slumber, with indignant posts - often, ironically, made on the selfsame social media website - and a flurry of newspaper articles following on their trail. The latest bone of contention, however, may be more sinister than any previous complaints Facebook viewers may have voiced in the past.

Last month, another revision to Facebook's privacy policies once again sent shockwaves across the online grapevine, as the company announced that it will be adding facial recognition technology to its features. This effectively means that the Facebook backend will be able to recognise what you look like without any prompts from another human being - whether it's you or a person on your friends list.

Coming off the heels of the NSA surveillance brouhaha in the US, it's understandable that this piece of news was met with some controversy. We all know privacy to be something of a precarious thing these days, and such an intrusive technology will inevitably be seen as one step too far.

But following complaints by data protection watchdogs in both Ireland and Germany, Facebook agreed to disable facial recognition for users across Europe.

Writing on the popular American online magazine Slate, Amy Webb warned against the dangers of posting pictures of your children on social media sites without their consent - especially now that facial recognition would obliterate any chance of anonymity the child may have from very early on. It would even, Webb suggests, compromise her chances of finding a job in the future, since with so much of her past openly on display, prospective employers are bound to find something that rubs them the wrong way.

Just as record companies and film studios consistently fall prey to online piracy - and are frustrated in their attempts to put an end to it at every turn - so has our privacy become a slippery commodity, and the existence of widespread facial recognition technology (whether it's barred from Europe or not) represents the kind of science-fictional scenario we're all trained to be frightened of by popular culture.

From the American series Knight Rider (a staple of Maltese television by virtue of being imported to Italian channels) to Terminator, Robocop and countless others, facial recognition was used as a marker of technology so advanced that it looks like magic - one of the more immediate pleasures of science fiction being its ability to wow the audience with dazzlingly complex gadgets and technologies. But sci-fi is also a hotbed of cautionary tales.

From its inception - in, say, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein - it served to warn us against tampering with the natural order and pushing technology to its limit. More recently, the Steven Spielberg-directed, Tom Cruise-starring Minority Report (2002) posits a future world where the police can 'predict' crimes by means of advanced technology, and where retinal scans help to tailor make billboards for individual passersby.

Sound familiar? It should: Facebook is already tailoring the adverts that appear on your 'News Feed', based on the information you provide on your profile.

The key question is, as the line between science fiction and science fact continues to erode to insignificance, will data protection watchdogs remain an effective deterrent against the invasion of our privacy?


What sucks about Facebook is, that once you're in you can't get out. Personally, I aint got in in the first place, so Facebook can't screw with me!