Facebook's announcement about facial recognition is a misleading distraction

Posted November 22, 2021, 2:00 PM

In response to Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen’s, testimony before Congress, Facebook has denied, deflected, and attempted to minimize the gravity of the allegations against the company. The company attacked Haugen and attempted to undermine her reputation, claiming that it was beyond the scope of her former role to have any direct knowledge about the content of her testimony. 

Soon after, Mark Zuckerberg announced that, in order to emphasize the platform’s shift toward a virtual reality metaverse, Facebook would be rebranding as Meta. Within days, Facebook announced that it would end its ten year facial recognition program––putting an end to automatically identifying people in photos and deleting its billion-face database.

Human, digital, and civil rights organizations, as well as journalists, politicians, and activists, celebrated this decision and called it a turning point in the battle against facial recognition. But within 24 hours, it was clarified that although Facebook would no longer use facial recognition, the technology would be used in Meta, Instagram, and other products owned by Facebook. The company will also continue to use DeepFace, the facial recognition algorithm that was trained on the billion-image database. Absent a third-party audit, there is no way to know if the database was deleted, and even if it was, massive amounts of data could have already been derived from the original set. 

The reality is that Meta will inherently collect even more personal data than Facebook. Haugen warned that the “metaverse,” the all-encompassing virtual reality world promised by Zuckerberg, “will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information” while creating the conditions for Facebook to create another digital monopoly. She stated that “… the metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces” forcing users to relinquish more of their data and their privacy. And it’s all part of Meta’s business model to sell  surveillance hardware like headsets with eye and face tracking technology that collects troves of users’ personal biometric data.

Ready or not, the internet is changing, and there’s no guarantee that it will change for the better. Fortunately, there are some very concrete steps that can be taken to reduce the harm caused by social media giants like Facebook and Big Tech in general. Congress needs to enact strong Federal data privacy legislation, and allocate plenty of resources for it to be enforced. Congress must pass legislation banning facial recognition so that these decisions about if and how facial recognition is used are not left up to the companies that stand to profit off of it. In order to begin to address Big Tech’s monopolization and create space for smaller companies to compete and create alternatives to major platforms, lawmakers should pass the Big Tech antitrust package. They must move swiftly to confirm FCC nominees Jessica Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn so that the agency can get to work reinstating net neutrality, closing the digital divide, and addressing other digital rights issues. FTC Chair nominee, Alvaro Bedoya, must be confirmed as well so the agency can impose new regulations (and enforce existing ones), launch investigations, and create a plan to hold the Zuckerbergs of the world accountable for the immeasurable harm caused by their greed. The next few years are critical for the next generation of the internet, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight for a brighter, more equitable future.