Why You Can’t Really Consent to Facebook’s Facial Recognition
While the social media platform’s latest approach to facial recognition appears to respect user’s choices, the offer is so tainted we can’t truly agree to it
Co-authored by Woodrow Hartzog
Not long ago, Consumer Reports launched an investigation into Facebook and discovered something surprising. Nearly a year and a half after the company introduced a new, designated setting called “Face Recognition” that allowed users to opt-out of facial recognition, not everyone had access to it. This wasn’t just a problem for the people directly affected. It symbolized the larger issue of tech companies leaving us feeling disempowered, even when they say they’re doing more to protect our privacy.
By July it was clear that change was coming. That’s when the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a historic $5 billion fine and ordered the company to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose how it uses facial recognition software — in a separate form from the privacy and data policies — while also obtaining the user’s “affirmative express consent.” In the aftermath, Facebook announced that after consulting with “privacy experts, academics, regulators,” and other stakeholders, it is finally giving everyone the same simple controls for facial recognition and only subjecting new users (as well as the old ones who are only now gaining access to the Face Recognition setting) to the technology if they choose to opt-in.
What’s not to like about Facebook‘s latest approach? After all, keeping facial recognition off by default is a good privacy by design approach. It puts privacy first and bakes in the values of choice and consent — ideals that, in the United States, go together like stars and stripes. The appeal is intuitive. People typically don’t want to be told what to do. We want to be free to make up our own minds — about what to eat, what to watch, and, yes, what technologies to use. From this perspective, Facebook deserves praise for not shoving facial technology in our faces.
Over time, facial tagging by users at scale can penetrate deep into our psyches… it makes those of us…