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

New automatic recognition feature for photos raises privacy issues.

ByABC News
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