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Just a few years ago, facial recognition technology was one of the hottest areas of the technology sector. Facebook was using advanced AI-powered facial recognition technology to spot familiar faces in social media posts, Amazon was leveraging its proprietary facial recognition technology as a way to win huge contracts with law enforcement agencies around the nation, Microsoft was developing one of the largest “face databases” in the world, and just about everyone was scraping the big social media networks for faces and images. But in 2020, that has all changed. In fact, you might say that facial recognition technology is now too hot to handle.
Facial recognition and government surveillance
For starters, you have the fact that foreign social media companies and foreign tech start-ups are getting into the game as well, and that’s why social media platforms like TikTok (made in China) are so controversial these days. Or think about the Russian facial recognition app – FaceApp – that was such a viral hit online. But now people are not so certain that they want the Chinese or the Russians to have access to their faces. What if, for example, the Chinese Communist state decides that it doesn’t like what you are saying about it on TikTok? Do you really want the Chinese government to be able to spot you in a crowd, anywhere you happen to be in the world?
Controversial law enforcement techniques
And that doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface when it comes to what makes facial recognition technology so hot to handle for social media companies. Take, for example, the recent news that Clearview AI has landed a new facial recognition technology contract with ICE, the most controversial government agency in the nation. It is one thing to use facial recognition tech for social media, but another thing entirely to use it for deporting someone out of the country. Imagine for a moment being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. and fearing that even a routine trip to the local supermarket might somehow trigger a facial recognition alert, resulting in ICE officers “meeting” you in the parking lot as you exit the store.
And just consider how much heat Amazon is now taking for partnering with law enforcement on the rollout of its popular Ring video doorbell cams. The idea was supposed to be simple – if someone steals an Amazon package off your porch, you’d have your Ring doorbell cam record an image of the perpetrator, and as long as you consented to have your Ring doorbell cam linked up with the local police department via an app, you’d get your package back in no time. But in an era when the call to “defund the police” is louder than ever, just how much do you think Big Tech companies want to make their links with the police public knowledge?
Last but not least, there are all sorts of privacy concerns involved with facial recognition technology. For good reason, all the big social media companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube – are now sending out cease & desist (C&D) letters to any companies found to be scraping their sites for facial images. Companies want these images for a variety of reasons, including the ability to train their own AI systems on these images.
And, make no doubt about it, there are going to be plenty of legal challenges going forward. For example, the ACLU is already suing Clearview AI. The ACLU has flat out stated, “Companies like Clearview will end privacy as we know it.” And companies like Facebook and Google don’t want to be brought to their knees by packs of lawyers, so they are backing off facial recognition technology while they still can.
Can social media companies ignore facial recognition tech?
But will it really matter? Consider, for a moment, that four companies made a bid for that lucrative ICE contract. So if Clearview didn’t win the bid, somebody else would have. In the same way, if Facebook, Google, Amazon and LinkedIn decide to throw in the towel on facial recognition forever, then somebody else will simply step into the fray. That’s why facial recognition technology is not done yet – it’s simply too hot to handle for now. Being able to recognize a face in a social media post is useful – just as long as the “right” people (your friends and not government spooks) are doing the facial recognition.
Until things cool down, the big social media companies should be coming up with a new framework for determining how facial recognition technology can be deployed ethically and fairly, without violating the basic constitutional rights of all Americans.