Facebook In Your Face: New Facial Recognition Feature Raises a Few Eyebrows

New automatic recognition feature for photos raises privacy issues.

June 8, 2011, 12:40 PM

June 10, 2011— -- Oh, Facebook, here we go again.

The social media giant is facing a new wave of concerns over privacy protection after launching its latest feature, which allows users to identify their friends automatically in photos without their permission.

The photo tagging tool, called Tag Suggestions, was put into place in December, but it was listed as unavailable until recently.

Here's how it works: When a user uploads new photos to his or her Facebook profile, the new feature then scans them with facial recognition software to match the people in the photos with other photos in which they might have been previously tagged.

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The feature also offers "group tagging," which allows users to type in a person's name and "apply it to multiple photos of the same person," according to Facebook's blog post on the subject.

The problem is that users can do this without their friend's permission.

Facebook said on its blog Tuesday that it has been rolling out the Tag Suggestions feature over the course of several months. While it was originally just available in the United States, they also said it is now activated in several countries, which has already caused some headaches.

Bloomberg.com reported that a group of European Union data-protection regulators announced Wednesday they have launched a probe into the new feature, which was enabled as an active default setting, to see if it violated any privacy rules.

Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant for Sophos, a British Internet security firm, called the new feature "creepy" and said that one of Facebook's biggest offenses was not telling its users this feature was being launched, as well as not explaining to them how to opt out of it.

"There's a huge backlash in response.... [Facebook users] don't really like the idea of Internet companies, Facebook in particular, gathering data of what we look like," he said. "It makes me uncomfortable...especially when they turn on features like this without even telling us."

Cluley said the potential danger with this feature is your Facebook friends can upload any photo and tag it with your name, and Facebook doesn't give you the option to pre-approve your name being attached to that photo.

"It's encouraging people to tag you even more," he said. "Over time, that's going to be a very valuable lump of data so they should allow people to opt into it, but that's not Zuckerberg's way."

"Personally, I'm going through all my photos and tagging them Mark Zuckerberg," he joked.

Another concern with Facebook gathering this data, Cluley said, is what the company might do with it five or ten years down the road.

"Maybe in the future [Facebook] will sell this information to third parties," he said. "There's so much information we've already given away willingly to Facebook. They have slowly eroded away our control over that data."

Facial recognition technology is nothing new, and has been used in other photo editing software, such as Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa Web Albums.

Jim Tiller, the vice president of security for BT Global Services, which handles IT network security for multiple companies, said that facial recognition technology has been used for some time -- for instance, by law enforcement and terrorism experts to help track suspects.

In the realm of Facebook, Tiller said one advantage of this technology is that it "could be helpful in just managing digital media," depending on how it was used, and he felt that what Facebook was attempting to do was simply streamline the photo tagging process.

For instructions on how to turn off the Facebook facial recognition tool, go to the next page

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"I'm not sure Facebook is trying to do anything evil," he said. "I think they're doing what people want from Facebook."

However, Tiller pointed out that there were several flaws in how the social media giant implemented the facial recognition tool -- another example, he said, of having "more things that require opting out of instead of opting into."

Tiller said that users losing that control over what tagged photos of them are on the network "makes it unsettling."

"It frankly spooks people that the program can figure out who they are," he said. "[The tool is] another way of connecting the dots of who I am and where I'm going, who I'm hanging out with...there's no way to say, 'I don't want that.'"

Tiller said this new feature ultimately creates a "digital fingerprint" of you, and the biometric component "can't be ignored." He said this also raises concerns over if this tool could lead to a new kind of cyberstalking.

"The concept of identifying someone by their face allows you to increase the granularity information you can use... as a stalker or an attacker," Tiller said.

Facebook said on its blog that the idea behind Tag Suggestions was to make photo tagging easier.

"Every day, people add more than 100 million tags to photos on Facebook," the blog post said. "Tags make photos one of the most popular features on Facebook."

How to Turn off the Facebook Facial Recognition Tool

1. Log onto your Facebook profile and click on "Account" in the upper right hand corner.

2. From the drop down menu, click on "Privacy Settings."

3. Click on "Custom." At the bottom of the Custom menu, click on "Customize Settings."

4. Scroll down to the "Things others share" section to "Suggest photos of me to friends." Click "Edit Settings."

5. You should get a pop-up window that says "Photos: Suggest Tags." It will be enabled by default. Click on the drop-down menu and select "Disabled" to turn off the facial recognition tool. Click OK and your setting will be saved.

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