Facebook Is Ramping Up the Use of Facial Recognition as a Safety Tool

Visually impaired users will also benefit from the social network’s update

Facebook has been using facial-recognition technology since 2010 Facebook
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Facebook is ramping up its use of facial-recognition technology on three fronts: alerting people when they appear in other users’ photos, even if they were not tagged; warning people if someone else is using their photo as a profile picture; and new tools to extend the first update to visually impaired users.

The features are being introduced “in most places,” but not in Canada or the European Union, where the social network currently does not offer facial-recognition technology in order to comply with privacy laws and regulations.

Director of applied machine learning Joaquin Candela announced the new features in a Newsroom post Tuesday, saying that they are powered by the same technology that Facebook uses to suggest friends to tag in photos and videos, and adding, “Since 2010, face-recognition technology has helped bring people closer together on Facebook. Our technology analyzes the pixels in photos you’re already tagged in and generates a string of numbers we call a template. When photos and videos are uploaded to our systems, we compare those images to the template.”

Candela also stressed that users who wish to opt out of the social network’s facial-recognition features can do so with a single on-off control for all related features, adding that if someone’s tag suggestions setting is set to “none,” their default face recognition setting will be “off” unless they opt to manually change that.

The use of facial recognition still tends to raise a red flag for those who are concerned about privacy, so we contacted Facebook for further clarification on the privacy aspects of the new features. Rochelle Nadhiri, who works on policy communications for the social network, told Adweek, “We are letting people know their privacy choices right when we tell them about the new setting. They will receive a notice in their News Feed that links them directly to their settings. In addition, we’re keeping people informed via the Help Center and in Privacy Basics, our site that helps people understand how to control their information on Facebook.”

Users who decide to take advantage of the new features will be notified if they appear in photos and are part of the audience for the posts containing the photos, even if they were not tagged in those photos. Candela wrote, “We always respect the privacy setting people select when posting a photo on Facebook (whether that’s friends, public or a custom audience), so you won’t receive a notification if you’re not in the audience.”

They can then opt to tag themselves, leave the images as-is without tagging or contact the person who posted the photo to express their concerns.

In June, Facebook began testing tools in India to give people more control over the way their profile pictures can be downloaded and shared. Tuesday’s announcement safeguards profile pictures in a different way: If someone uploads a photo of another user and sets it as their profile picture, the subject of the photo will be notified by Facebook, in an attempt to prevent people from impersonating other people on the social network.

In November 2015, Facebook launched an artificial intelligence-powered tool to describe the contents of photos to visually impaired users. Now, the social network is adding its face recognition technology to the mix, letting visually impaired users know who appears in photos in their News Feeds, regardless of whether or not they are tagged.

Facebook is using face recognition technology to let visually impaired users know who appears in photos in their News Feeds

Janni Lehrer-Stein, who has been a disability rights advocate for the past 30 years, lamented the fact that the Americans With Disabilities Act is “unsettled” when it comes to the internet.

She told Adweek, “So much of emerging intercourse is conducted via images, and that leaves out the potential contributions of people who are blind or low-vision. So, I am delighted that Facebook is introducing this recognition software to accurately identify who is in the picture, and I look forward to being able to figure out the meaning of the photo along with everyone else. In this way, blind and low-vision Facebook users will be able to interact, engage and make our own contributions to social interaction and global discussion.”

Lehrer-Stein would like to see more websites follow Facebook’s lead, telling Adweek, “Any website—whether it is shopping, educational, informational, or just set up to enable people to share knowledge and ideas, like Facebook—would benefit from this kind of inclusive software. In this way, instead of relying on people to be able to view and understand images, every person engaged in social media will have equal opportunities to share their perspective, add their creativity and help promote progress, tolerance and compassion.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.