Friday, June 10, 2011

Facebook's Facial Recognition Technology Under Fire

Facebook always seems to be under fire about something. Well, this time it’s the social media giant’s facial recognition software. A single day after a security blog discussed how the facial recognition software was turned on by default for any photo tagging on the site, European data protection officials are allegedly beginning an investigation of the issue.

According to Bloomberg, the EU’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party will be looking into the situation for any “possible rules violations;” however, not only is the EU investigating the issue, but so are Ireland’s data protection authority and some government officials here in the states. Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is making his concerns about the technology known.

"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 announced their plans for the facial recognition technology way back in December. They explained it as similar to many photo editing tools and marketed it as a very helpful, time-saving upgrade. For those unfamiliar with this technology, Facebook explained it like this: “If you upload pictures from your cousin's wedding, we'll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name. Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you'll need to do is click 'Save' to tag all of your cousin's pictures at once. By making tagging easier than before, you're more likely to know right away when friends post photos. We notify you when you're tagged, and you can untag yourself at any time. As always, only friends can tag each other in photos."

Sounds pretty harmless, right? Facebook says that the technology examines any newly uploaded pictures and compares them to any photos in which you and your friends have been previously tagged. Then it can make a tagging suggestion.

On Tuesday Sophos, a security firm, expressed some concern over the fact that Facebook has the facial recognition technology turned on by default. "Now might be a good time to check your Facebook privacy settings as many Facebook users are reporting that the site has enabled the option in the last few days without giving users any notice," Sophos' Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post.

Facebook is "rather creepily ... pushing your friends to go ahead and tag you," Cluley wrote. "Remember, Facebook does not give you any right to pre-approve tags. Instead the onus is on you to untag yourself in any photo a friend has tagged you in. After the fact."

"Unfortunately, once again, Facebook seems to be sharing personal information by default," Cluley wrote. "The onus should not be on Facebook users having to "opt-out" of the facial recognition feature but instead on users having to 'opt-in.'"

Facebook responded saying that they definitely should have been more communicative to their users about the software.

"We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.

So far, there do not seem to be any plans to make the feature an opt-in thing. Facebook claims that the tool is only meant for speeding up the photo uploading process and is used by users “more than 100 million times a day.”

I can say from personal experience that I believe that facial recognition software is incredibly helpful! It saves me so much time, which is a great thing to me. Now, I will say that when I first uploaded pictures and Facebook was telling me who the people in the picture were, I was a little bit creeped out. I just wasn’t expecting it because I had never seen anything like that in action before, but now that I am used to it, it so convenient! To me it seems like some people are simply blowing things out of proportion. If Facebook users have an issue with the facial recognition technology, all they have to do is turn it off. It’s simple. Go to your Facebook account’s privacy setting, click on the “Customize settings” button, go to “Things others share” and find the option for “Suggest photos of me to friends.” If you want to see if it is enabled on your account, simply go to “Edit setting,” and the box should either say it is enabled or disabled. It is that simple folks!

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