Facebook pays $550 million to settle its facial recognition lawsuit

Photo (c) Smederevac - Getty Images

Experts say facial recognition is here to stay, but it needs more work to maintain consumers’ privacy

After nearly three years of legal push and shove, Facebook has settled its lawsuit over the social media platform’s use of facial recognition.

During an earnings call on Wednesday, Facebook’s CFO, David Wehner, acknowledged that the company had struck a deal to resolve the lawsuit for $550 million.

This case came about out of Facebook's "Tag Suggestions" program, which the company launched in 2010. In Facebook’s way of life, a "tag" is where a user identifies others in photos they’ve posted to Facebook. 

At the time, the basic idea was to encourage more tagging, but the idea ran amuck when Facebook started using facial recognition technology that extracted biometric information about the people in those photos. Perhaps worse was the fact that Facebook failed to let anyone know that their biometric ID was being collected or stored. 

"Biometrics is one of the two primary battlegrounds, along with geolocation, that will define our privacy rights for the next generation,” said Jay Edelson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. “We hope and expect that other companies will follow Facebook's lead and pay significant attention to the importance of our biometric information." 

The settlement appears to be the final step in Facebook acquiescing that its users do indeed own their photos and that those photos are private. Just last year, the company took the first step by agreeing that it would no longer scan posted photos as a “default” part of its routine.

Where is this headed?

Biometric scanning is probably here to stay, like it or not. But, it’s a far cry from being perfect, much less an acceptable part of life. Until then, municipalities and companies say that the practice should be kept on the workbench until it can be used in an justifiable fashion.

San Francisco’s police force is reportedly fighting to ban facial recognition; Microsoft says Congress should find a way to regulate the practice; and Google’s attempts reportedly failed to discern people of color, as did Amazon’s.

Watch out for anything called Big Data

Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who is very critical of its impact on society, contends that Big Tech’s use of what it likes to call Big Data is nothing more than code for extracting value from the consumer rather than creating it. 

“With each new generation of technology, entrepreneurs and engineers have an opportunity to profit from designing products that serve rather than exploit the needs of their users,” McNamee wrote in his book ‘Zucked.’

“At the end of the day, the best way to persuade Facebook and Google is to adopt human-driven technology to foster competition and demonstrate value in the marketplace,” he wrote. “The ideal would be to follow the Apple model set for facial recognition, where the data always remains on the smartphone, in the possession of the user.”

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