Facebook stirs privacy ire with facial recognition

EU to launching probe into what critics call a "creepy" feature

Facebook's move to enable facial recognition across its entire social networking site is raising some eyebrows - and possibly some legal woes -- over its privacy implications.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced in a blog post that it was working to make it easier for uses to tag photos of their friends and family members. To do this, it has been quietly rolling out facial recognition technology to a test group across the world's biggest social network since late last year.

That means Facebook's system will be able to recognize the faces of its 500 million to 600 million users worldwide. The company will be able to identify you simply by your face.

Facebook noted that starting in just a few weeks, its system will scan all photos posted to Facebook and will offer up the names of the people who appear in the frame. All of Facebook's users are automatically being added to the database.

The facial recognition feature is automatically turned on. Users who don't want the service must go in and manually opt out of it.

A day after the announcement was made, data protection regulators at the European Union said they will launch an investigation into it, according to the Bloomberg news service, which also reported that authorities in the U.K. and Ireland are looking into the matter.

"Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people's prior consent and it can't be activated by default," said Gerard Lommel, a member of the EU's Data Protection Working Party, according to Bloomberg. Such automatic tagging suggestions "can bear a lot of risks for users" and the European data-protection officials will "clarify to Facebook that this can't happen like this."

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said it's clear that Facebook hasn't learned any big lessons from its previous privacy brouhahas.

"Facebook's repeated methodology of opting all users into new services, particularly services with potentially damaging ramifications, demonstrates a certain disregard for the security and privacy of its users," Shimmin said. "When applied broadly, it can undermine our overall privacy -- perhaps putting an end to anonymity altogether. With the proliferation of cameras and the major role they play in Facebook, wherever you go, you may be identified and catalogued for future reference."

Over the past year or so, Facebook has found itself in the center of several firestorms related to privacy issues.

Just last fall, it was revealed that some of Facebook's most popular applications, such as FarmVille, Texas HoldEm Poker and FrontierVille, had been sending users' personal information to dozens of advertising and Internet monitoring companies. According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, the issue affected tens of millions of users, even those who had set their privacy settings to the strictest levels.

Earlier last year, Facebook was criticized after the company unveiled tools that would allow the sharing of user information with other Web sites. That move caused an uproar among users and prompted a handful of U.S. senators to send an open letter calling on Facebook to amend its privacy policies.

"You'd think that they would have learned something from the past pounding they've taken on privacy issues, but it doesn't look like they have," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "This is pretty creepy ... Let's say some guy sees an attractive woman, he can snap a quick picture of her with his cellphone camera and then search Facebook to see who she is."

Olds added that people should quickly move to opt out of the feature but he's concerned that most users won't take the issue seriously enough.

But for those who want to turn the feature off, security company Sophos offers some how-tos:

  • First, go to your Facebook "Account" in the upper right-hand corner of the page. Then click on "Privacy Settings."
  • Next, click on "Customize settings."
  • Then go to "Things others share."
  • Beside the option titled "Suggest photos of me to friends. When photos look like me, suggest my name," click "Edit Settings."
  • Click on "Edit settings."
  • Then change it to "Disabled."
  • Don't forget to press "Okay."

Not everyone is concerned about Facebook's facial recognition feature, though.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said the technology is out there whether Facebook uses it or not. "If Facebook doesn't do this someone else likely will," he said. "Remember [Facebook isn't] making private things public with this. They are making public things easier to find."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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