Home / Technical / Facebook has auto-enrolled users into a facial recognition test in Europe – TechCrunch

Facebook has auto-enrolled users into a facial recognition test in Europe – TechCrunch

Facebook users in Europe are reporting the company has begun testing its controversial facial recognition technology in the region.

Jimmy Nsubuga, a journalist at Metro, is among several European Facebook users who have said they’ve been notified by the company they are in its test bucket.

The company has previously said an opt-in option for facial recognition will be pushed out to all European users next month. It’s hoping to convince Europeans to voluntarily allow it to expand its use of the privacy-hostile tech — which was turned off in the bloc after regulatory pressure, back in 2012, when Facebook was using it for features such as automatically tagging users in photo uploads.

Under impending changes to its T&Cs — ostensibly to comply with the EU’s incoming GDPR data protection standard — the company has crafted a manipulative consent flow that tries to sell people on giving it their data; including filling in its own facial recognition blanks by convincing Europeans to agree to it grabbing and using their biometric data after all. 

Notably Facebook is not offering a voluntary opt-in to Europeans who find themselves in its facial recognition test bucket. Rather users are being automatically turned into its lab rats — and have to actively delve into the settings to say no.

In a notification to affected users, the company writes [emphasis ours]: “You control face recognition. This setting is on, but you can turn it off at any time, which applies to features we may add later.”

Not only is the tech turned on, but users who click through to the settings to try and turn it off will also find Facebook attempting to dissuade them from doing that — with manipulative examples of how the tech can “protect” them.

As another Facebook user who found herself enrolled in the test — journalist Jennifer Baker — points out, what it’s doing here is incredibly disingenuous because it’s using fear to try to manipulate people’s choices.

Under the EU’s incoming data protection framework Facebook will not be able to automatically opt users into facial recognition — it will have to convince people to switch the tech on themselves.

But the experiment it’s running here (without gaining individuals’ upfront consent) looks very much like a form of A/B testing — to see which of its disingenuous examples is best able to convince people to accept the highly privacy-hostile technology by voluntarily switching it on.

But given that Facebook controls the entire consent flow, and can rely on big data insights gleaned from its own platform (of 2BN+ users), this is not even remotely a fair fight.

Consent is being manipulated, not freely given. This is big data-powered mass manipulation of human decisions — i.e. until the ‘right’ answer (for Facebook’s business) is ‘selected’ by the user.

Data protection experts we spoke to earlier this week do not believe Facebook’s approach to consent will be legal under GDPR. Legal challenges are certain at this point.

But legal challenges also take time. And in the meanwhile Facebook users will be being manipulated into agreeing with things that align with the company’s data-harvesting business interests — and handing over their sensitive personal information without understanding the full implications.

It’s also not clear how many Facebook users are being auto-enrolled into this facial recognition test — we’ve put questions to it and will update this post with any reply.

Last month Facebook said it would be rolling out “a limited test of some of the additional choices we’ll ask people to make as part of GDPR”.

It also said it was “starting by asking only a small percentage of people so that we can be sure everything is working properly”, and further claimed: “[T]he changes we’re testing will let people choose whether to enable facial recognition, which has previously been unavailable in the EU.”

Facebook’s wording in those statements is very interesting — with no number put on how many people will be made into test subjects (though it is very clearly trying to play the experiment down; “limited test”, “small”) — so we simply don’t know how many Europeans are having their facial data processed by Facebook right now, without their upfront consent.

Nor do we know where in Europe all these test subjects are located. But it’s pretty likely the test contravenes even current EU data protection laws. (GDPR applies from May 25.)

Facebook’s description of its testing plan last month was also disingenuous as it implied users would get to choose to enable facial recognition. In fact, it’s just switching it on — saddling test subjects with the effort of opting out.

The company was likely hoping the test would not attract too much attention — given how much GDPR news is flowing through its PR channels, and how much attention the topic is generally sucking up — and we can see why now because it’s essentially reversed its 2012 decision to switch off facial recognition in Europe (made after the feature attracted so much blow-back), to grab as much data as it can while it can.

Millions of Europeans could be having their fundamental rights trampled on here, yet again. We just don’t know what the company actually means by “small”. (The EU has ~500M inhabitants — even 1%, a “small percentage”, of that would involve millions of people… )

Once again Facebook isn’t telling how many people it’s experimenting on.

Natasha Lomas

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