Facebook rolls out facial recognition by stealth?

7 Jun 2011

Facebook has deployed a new facial-recognition technology in a certain number of countries outside the US. One problem: nobody told the users.

Facebook last year introduced a face-recognition system in North America that encourages users to tag other users’ names on photos if their friends’ faces match on their photograph collections.

According to security blogger at Sophos Graham Cluley, Facebook has rolled the facial-recognition technology internationally without telling anyone.

“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,” Cluley explained.

“There are billions of photographs on Facebook’s servers. As your Facebook friends upload their albums, Facebook will try to determine if any of the pictures look like you. And if they find what they believe to be a match, they may well urge one of your Facebook friends to tag it with your name.

“The tagging is still done by your friends, not by Facebook, but rather creepily Facebook is now pushing your friends to go ahead and tag you.

“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,” Cluley warned.

How to check if facial recognition has been turned on

Cluley said users can check if the system has been enabled on their accounts and can disable it by going to their Facebook accounts’ privacy settings, clicking on ‘Customise settings’ and under ‘Things other share’ you should see an option titled ‘Suggest photos of me to friends.’ Then click on ‘Edit settings’.

“If Facebook has enabled auto suggestion of photo tags, you will find the option says ‘Enabled’. Change it to ‘Disabled’ if you don’t want Facebook to work that way.”

Cluley said that Sophos had written to Facebook earlier this year asking for “privacy by default”, meaning there should not be any more sharing of information without users’ express agreement or opt-in.

Privacy settings still confusing for many users

“Unfortunately, once again, Facebook seems to be sharing personal information by default. Many people feel distinctly uncomfortable about a site like Facebook learning what they look like, and using that information without their permission.

“Most Facebook users still don’t know how to set their privacy options safely, finding the whole system confusing. It’s even harder, though, to keep control when Facebook changes the settings without your knowledge.

“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’.

“Yet again, it feels like Facebook is eroding the online privacy of its users by stealth,” Cluley said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years