Facebook under scrutiny for face-recognition feature from privacy group, lawmakers


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Facebook’s new facial-recognition feature is getting some unwelcome recognition from a prominent privacy group and lawmakers in the U.S. and European Union.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that it plans to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission raising concerns over Facebook’s new ‘tag suggestions’ feature which allow users to identify people across multiple photos at once using facial-recognition software.


‘Obviously we’re not going to comment in detail until we file whatever were going to file,’ said John Verdi, senior council at EPIC. ‘But, we think the facial recognition feature raises real questions about what sort of data Facebook is collecting from its users and from its users’ photographs.

‘And it also raises questions about what Facebook does with this user data once it collects it and who else is accessing that data after it’s collected.’

Facebook announced that it was planning to roll out the new facial-recognition feature across its entire social network -- which has more than 500 million worldwide users -- on Tuesday in a company blog post. The feature was first announced, for testing, in December.

‘When you or a friend upload new photos, we use face recognition software -- similar to that found in many photo editing tools -- to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in,’ said Justin Mitchell, a Facebook engineer in the blog post announcing the feature’s roll-out. ‘We group similar photos together and, whenever possible, suggest the name of the friend in the photos.’

If a Facebook user doesn’t want their name to be suggested in the new feature, they can opt out, Mitchell said, explaining the process in the blog post:

You will be able to disable suggested tags in your Privacy Settings. Just click ‘Customize Settings’ and ‘Suggest photos of me to friends.’ Your name will no longer be suggested in photo tags, though friends can still tag you manually.


But the fact that Facebook’s facial-recognition feature is opt-out and not opt-in and Facebook ‘changed user privacy settings to automatically turn on a new facial recognition feature that detects a user’s face in an image or photo’ was a point of criticism for Mass. Rep. Edward J. Markey, who is the co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus.

‘Requiring users to disable this feature after they’ve already been included by Facebook is no substitute for an opt-in process,’ Markey said in a statement. ‘If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims, it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users’ privacy settings without their permission.’

Facebook officials weren’t available Wednesday to comment on the criticism of the site’s facial-recognition feature.

A group of privacy regulators in the European Union also said on Wednesday that they would launch a probe into the new Facebook feature to ‘measure for possible rules violations,’ according to a report from Bloomberg.

‘Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default,’ Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, said in the Bloomberg report.

Introducing such a feature without that consent ‘can bear a lot of risks for users’ and officials at the E.U. are planning to ‘clarify to Facebook that this can’t happen like this,’ Lommel said, according to the report.

[Updated 2:39 p.m.: A Facebook spokeswoman emailed a statment to the Technology Blog stating that the company should have made users more aware of the new feature before it was widely released.

‘We launched Tag Suggestions to help people add tags of their friends in photos; something that’s currently done more than 100 million times a day. Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested. If for any reason someone doesn’t want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their Privacy Settings.

When we announced this feature last December, we explained that we would test it, listen to feedback and iterate before rolling it out more broadly. We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them. Tag Suggestions are now available in most countries and we’ll post further updates to our blog over time.’]


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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles