This post was written by Spencer Wein.
Facebook has rolled out a new feature that uses photo recognition technology to suggest friends’ names to tag in uploaded photos. While certainly an impressive feature, the problem is that the social network giant introduced the feature as a default setting rather than as an opt-in option. This has left privacy advocates up in arms.
Prior to facial recognition technology, Facebook users could manually tag pictures without permission from their friends. Under the new default settings, when a Facebook user adds photos to his or her pages, facial recognition software suggests names of people in the photos to tag based on pictures in which that user’s friends have already been identified. The feature is active by default on existing users’ accounts, though Facebook does explain on its blog how users can disable the function if they don’t want their names to be automatically suggested in their friends’ photographs.
On June 10, Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (“EPIC”) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission regarding Facebook’s new automated tagging feature. EPIC uses strong, Orwellian language, alleging that “[u]sers could not reasonably have known that Facebook would use their photos to build a biometric database in order to implement a facial recognition technology under the control of Facebook.” EPIC further warns that “absent injunctive relief by the Commission, Facebook will likely expand the use of the facial recognition database it has covertly established for purposes over which Facebook users will be able to exercise no meaningful control.” In its request for relief, EPIC urges the FTC to force Facebook to suspend photo-recognition “pending a full investigation, the establishment of stronger privacy standards and a requirement that automated identification, based on user photos, require opt-in consent.”
Facebook, on the other hand, has downplayed the recent complaints, writing on its blog that “Tag Suggestions” had already been widely available in most countries as it had been phased in over several months. “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,” Facebook further noted in an emailed statement. “Tag suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested.”
By limiting the feature to a user’s friend list, Facebook has attempted to minimize privacy infringement. However, there is no guarantee that Facebook does not eventually extend the tag suggestions to its complete user base. A person could conceivably take a picture in a public place, and then easily learn a stranger’s identity. At worst, this could help facilitate criminal acts. At a minimum, the technology could create online reputation problems.
Additionally, it is unclear if Facebook will make the technology available to advertisers. Though certainly not an imminent danger, it is possible that the technology will reach a point where advertisers will recognize people in physical spaces and present personally tailored ads. Further, we cannot know how Facebook will respond to subpoenas and government requests for such data.
Regardless of the technology’s “Big Brother” potential as well as the ongoing backlash that Facebook seemingly continues to experience with the rollout of each new feature and tool, it’s quite surprising this company maintains the same, standard modus operandi of making its privacy-related features and tools the "default" setting. It will be both important and interesting to monitor how Facebook and its opponents handle this latest privacy issue.