YouTube Claims to Be “Explicitly Clear” on Facial Recognition, But Is It Really?
As a virtually endless collection of images of humans, YouTube presents a potential treasure trove for facial recognition users and developers.
YouTube’s most recent Terms of Service are supposed to make it clear that that treasure is not for the taking. But do they?
What Was in YouTube’s Update?
YouTube sent out a Terms of Service Update in May 2021. Users might notice more advertisements, and other monetization changes will impact content creators. However, for the most part, the update was fairly run-of-the-mill and was only intended to make existing terms of service more clear. Per the email,
We’re updating the YouTube Terms of Service to clarify our terms and provide transparency to our users… These changes shouldn’t significantly alter your access or use of YouTube Services.
A summary of changes included in the email specifically mentioned facial recognition restrictions:
The Terms of Service already state that you cannot collect any information that might identify a person without their permission. While this has always included facial recognition information, the new terms make that explicitly clear.
So, what do the updated Terms of Service say about facial recognition software?
What YouTube’s Terms (Don’t) Say About Facial Recognition
The updated Terms of Service don’t say anything about facial recognition software. At least, not "explicitly," as the term "facial recognition" never appears in the document.
The passage from the Terms of Service that the email references is found in Section 4 of Permissions and Restrictions under Your Use of the Service. It reads,
[You are not allowed to] collect or harvest any information that might identify a person (for example, usernames or faces) unless permitted by that person or allowed under Section 3 above.
Not only is this less than "explicitly clear"—it might be ineffective. The allowances in Section 3 include "in the case of public search engines, in accordance with YouTube’s robots.txt file, or with YouTube’s prior written permission."
This suggests that YouTube videos accessed through a search engine rather than through YouTube directly may not be protected. Even if these sections don’t constitute a loophole or other breach, the Terms of Service remain far from explicit on facial recognition.
Is This a Step in the Right Direction?
YouTube is at least thinking about facial recognition and you might be asking why that is. There are two potential use cases for facial recognition on YouTube. One is scary now; the other is potentially scary later.
The "scary now" scenario involves facial recognition software sorting through YouTube to identify individuals in videos. You can apply your imagination to land at any number of negative scenarios for this, and this seems to be the kind of thing that YouTube is addressing in their Terms of Service.
The "scary later" scenario involves using YouTube to train facial recognition software. Developing and testing facial recognition software requires access to huge numbers of images and faces. Stock photo sites including Flickr are known to have been used in this way.
Can We Trust YouTube More Than We Trust Google?
While it’s exciting that YouTube is talking about facial recognition as it relates to our privacy, YouTube is hardly taking the strong-handed approach that they promised. And there could be another unsettling reason for that too.
The allowances that we looked at let facial recognition projects use YouTube videos if they have prior written permission from YouTube. YouTube’s parent company, Google, is a known developer and user of facial recognition. As a result, it sounds like Google can just sign its own permission slips to use YouTube videos for facial recognition.
Are You Afraid of Facial Recognition?
Like so many technologies today, facial recognition can be scary but it isn’t inherently evil. It’s used to unlock smart devices, tag people in photographs, and help us try on virtual sunglasses.
While a stronger arm from YouTube would be nice, we’ll just have to settle for being careful about what we post online.
Image Credit: Esther Vargas / Flickr
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June 1, 2021 at 06:08AM