Facebook Deletes User Data

Another week, another Facebook story. Don’t worry, we're not slowly becoming a Facebook news outlet, they just keep making headlines in the world of data protection, and this time seemingly for a positive reason.

Since 2010, Facebook, who as a company have recently changed their name to Meta, has had a facial recognition feature on their platform that allows users to automatically tag their friends in photos. The technology worked by automatically detecting people when users upload a photo, which would mean that Facebook had in their systems the facial data of pretty much all of their users.

From our previous stories and news updates regarding Facebook, its quite clear to see that Facebook often go against the wishes of privacy advocates, and try to hold as much data as they can on users of their platform, even when it is done so against the knowledge of the users. Our article on how Facebook is doing this can be read here.

 

However this story strangely takes a different turn, as Facebook are planning to shut down their facial recognition system, and delete the facial data they have retained on over 1 billion users. One of the reasons for this seemingly out of character privacy positive act from Facebook is its history of causing problems for them due to backlash from multiple parties. The technology and its implementation across their platform has caused privacy concerns amongst users and privacy advocates, regulatory challenges, government investigations and a lawsuit. Essentially, holding the facial data of 1/7th of the population might not be worth the hassle it has caused for Facebook. 

The company’s vice president of artificial intelligence has provided a comment on the withdrawal of the technology, stating that the changes had been made in part due to “many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society.” He also added however that they may still look to use the technology in another way, saying “every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance.” 

Facial recognition software and how the data that is collected can be abused has been a focus of privacy concerns over the past few years, as the technology has improved and become more accurate in identifying people. The power that the technology has means it can be, and has been misused by governments and organisations. An article in the New York Times provides examples of how China has used the technology to track Uyghurs, a largely muslim minority in China. It also outlines how the US Government has used the software to aid police investigations, and how some cities have banned the use of the technology through fear of overreach and mistaken arrests.

Now whilst Facebook have always said that they only use the data that’s been collected using this technology on their own site, and haven’t sold it to any third parties, privacy advocates have always questioned how much facial data Facebook actually has, and what they could do with it, due to how valuable it would be to companies training and developing facial recognition software. In 2019, Facebook were fined a record $5 billion due to privacy violations, with the facial recognition software they used being one of the main areas of concern. In addition to this, they were also fined $650 million in Illinois in 2020 for violating a state law for failing to gain consent from their users when collecting biometric data, including ‘facial geometry’. 

Ultimately, whilst its a positive step by Facebook (now Meta) in removing the use of a technology that has raised so many concerns and can have a negative impact on users if that data is misused, its hard to to believe that Facebook are doing this with their own interests at heart, as opposed to their users. Facebook has had so much negative press over the past few years as a result of their abuse of the data that they collect that doing something like this, whilst minor in terms of the impact it has on ultimately, the amount of money that they make, it can be spun in a way that looks like they’re trying to move towards a privacy focussed approach, however untrue that may be. With recent documents that have been leaked by an ex Facebook employee that expose the fact that Facebook are aware that they enable the spread of misinformation, hate speech and content that promotes violence, giving up possession of user data, no matter how minor it may be in the grand scheme of things, allows them to present an image of being user data privacy advocates in a time where that is greatly beneficial to them as they look to move in a different direction after announcing the rebranding of their name from Facebook to Meta, and the shift in focus that that provides them.

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