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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Facebook and Google Think You’re Ready for Some More Facial Recognition

New services from Facebook and Google extend the reach of facial recognition. Do people still find it creepy?

  • June 15, 2015

Maybe having a multibillion-dollar advertising-supported corporation algorithmically recognize your face and those of your nearest and dearest is not so bad. At least, that’s what Google and Facebook seem to think people are starting to believe.

Facial recognition technology has often been a flashpoint for outcry over privacy from regulators, media, and the general public. But today Facebook rolled out Moments, a new photo-sharing app based on the technology. Late last month, Google put its own facial recognition algorithms at the heart of its new Google Photos service (see “Google Rolls Out New Automated Helpers”).

Both those new services are built on the back of recent improvements in facial recognition technology, enabled by an approach to machine learning called deep learning (see “Facebook Creates Software That Matches Faces Almost as Well as You Do”).

But both services could likely have been rolled out before now. Both companies had previously thought their facial recognition good enough to put into their products before deep learning came along. And the two new services both target longstanding problems people have with managing their photos. Facebook’s Moments uses facial recognition to group together photos taken by friends at the same event, say a wedding, so you can see them all without having to pester people to send them around. Google Photos creates a virtual photo album dedicated to each of the faces you photograph most, providing a new way to browse and rediscover your snaps.

What’s new? Perhaps Google and Facebook have decided people are comfortable enough with facial recognition that they are ready for it to extend a little further into their lives.

The fact that Google’s Photos app hasn’t attracted much negative attention over its use of facial recognition suggests that may be the case. (Google carefully stressed at the launch that no data from the service would be used by any other part of the company.)

The reception that Facebook’s Moments app gets will be more telling. Its facial recognition features have previously triggered widespread complaints. To this day, Facebook doesn’t use facial recognition on its users inside the European Union after it promised regulators there in 2012 that it would turn off the feature and delete the data used to recognize people’s faces. Moments is today available only in the U.S., with more, unspecified, countries promised “over time.”

None of this is to say that facial recognition has suddenly become something people welcome with open arms. But they don’t have to welcome it for it to become a standard part of daily life. A Pew Internet survey late last year found that 80 percent of people who use social networking sites are “concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.” Nonetheless, people still use those sites. Facial recognition has perhaps now become just another part of that useful if sometimes unsettling package.

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