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Facial recognition technology faces mounting legal, ethical questions

Facebook's parent company slapped with a lawsuit involving its facial recognition technology.
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Posted at 1:02 PM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 16:02:35-05

Facebook's parent company, Meta, is under scrutiny for its use of facial recognition technology from 2009 until late 2021.

The Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit in mid-February, seeking damages related to Facebook's photo services.

The lawsuit highlights Facebook's Tag Suggestions feature, which helped users identify friends and other people in photos for years using proprietary technology.

"While touting Tag Suggestions as a means to improve user experience," the lawsuit said, "Facebook never disclosed that Tag Suggestions was capturing facial geometry from photographs and continuously training its AI. ... [Users] were helping to teach Facebook's facial-recognition techonology to better map and recognize human faces for the benefit of Facebook's commercial endeavors."

Meta has called the allegations "baseless."

In 2021, the company settled a similar lawsuit in Illinois for $650 million.

"The states really go after these companies now," said Christof Teuscher, a professor at Portland State University who specializes in new computing paradigms and machines.

Teuscher noted that Texas and Illinois are among a handful of states with biometric data privacy laws on the books.

"Other states don't have that," Teuscher said. "They can't really sue in the same way."

Texas' lawsuit comes amid a broader push against the use of facial recognition technology.

In February, the IRS announced it would stop forcing taxpayers to use facial recognition software from ID.me when filing taxes.

The partnership, announced in November 2021, was supposed to help keep taxpayer data secure.

But when it launched in January, the partnership faced immediate criticism from many in the information technology sector.

"We understand the concerns that have been raised," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig in a written statement announcing the decision to stop using ID.me technology. "[W]e are quickly pursuing short-term options that do not involve facial recognition."

"There are several concerns," said Teuscher. "One is that the data could end up in the wrong hands. Someone could hack Meta or the IRS or ID.me. Anywhere you have huge data collections, there's the risk that it could end up in the wrong hands."

Teuscher pointed out that, despite the risk, facial recognition technology has many positive uses in modern American life.

Millions of iPhone users unlock their phone using biometric data each day.

Facial recognition is also being used in fraud detection and abuse prevention.

"This technology is used widely. I don't think you can avoid it," Teuscher said, acknowledging the challenge facing lawmakers who try to regulate facial recognition in the future. "Your data's collected no matter what you do. You'd have to give up your cell phone, give up your social media. You're giving up a lot of good things, too."

"So how far are we willing to go? I don't know," Teuscher said. "There's no easy solution."