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Privacy Orgs Take Facebook Facial Face-off to FTC

Privacy Orgs Take Facebook Facial Face-off to FTC

The Electronic Privacy Information Center is leading a group of privacy advocate groups in filing a complaint with the FTC over Facebook's use of facial recognition technology. Facebook's Tag Suggestions feature, which gained significant attention last week, automatically determines the identities of people in uploaded photos and suggests names the uploader can use to tag the images.

By Richard Adhikari
06/14/11 11:53 AM PT

Four consumer protection organizations, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have filed a complaint with the United States Federal Trade Commission over Facebook's use of facial recognition technology.

The complaint states that the process creates an image identification system under the social networking giant's sole control.

This, the complaint contends, violates Facebook's privacy policy and certain public assurances the company made to users; constitutes unfair and deceptive trade practices; and, in essence, endangers individuals and violates their right to privacy.

"Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested," Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes told TechNewsWorld.

"No action is taken on a person's behalf, and all suggestions can be ignored," Noyes added.

"We take this case very seriously," Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director, told TechNewsWorld. "We're typically successful," he added.

The other organizations that filed the complaint to the FTC with EPIC are the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Wachdog and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

The Gist of the Complaint

The complaint to the FTC hints at possible abuse of the system, in addition to the charges listed above.

Facial recognition systems are being used by the Chinese and Iranian governments, among others, the complaint states.

Further, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is "pursuing a far-reaching program to automate the identification and tagging of individuals, both citizens and non-citizens, based upon their facial images" according to documents obtained by EPIC under the Freedom of Information Act.

The DHS is also promoting face recognition technology "so that federal marshals can surreptitiously photograph people in airports, bus and train stations and elsewhere, leading to the creation of new capabilities for government monitoring of individuals in public spaces," the complaint states.

Facebook grants government access to user information on "merely a good faith belief" that the disclosure is required by law or when it's necessary to protect itself from people it thinks are violating its statement of rights and responsibilities, the complaint alleges.

Facebook's Defense

People can disable the Tag Suggestions feature in their privacy settings, Facebook's Noyes said.

Since the feature was rolled out in December, "millions of people have used it to add hundreds of million tags," Noyes pointed out.

"This data, and the fact that we've had almost no user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful," Noyes stated.

Facial Recognition Fallout for Facebook

EPIC isn't buying Facebook's argument.

"Our complaint is very straightforward," EPIC's Rotenberg said. "I think we've made a good argument. We're selective when we pursue these complaints."

The brouhaha has brought Facebook into Congress's cross-hairs.

Congressman Edward Markey, who co-chairs the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, issued a statement Monday in support of the complaint filed with the FTC.

Markey's spokesperson, Giselle Barry, declined further comment. "We've just got the statement we put out yesterday," she told TechNewsWorld.

Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, directed staff to look into the issue last week when an uproar first erupted over the facial recognition technology, Ken Johnson, her senior adviser on the subcommittee, told TechNewsWorld in a previous interview.

Subcommittee staff were seeking to meet with Facebook last week.

Johnson did not provide further comment on Tuesday.

The DHS Strikes Back

Several efforts by the DHS to promote facial recognition have been scrapped after objections by local communities, the complaint to the FTC states.

The complaints against the DHS are "completely false," DHS spokesperson Amy Kudwa told TechNewsWorld.

"DHS is pursuing no such program and any statements to the contrary are baseless," Kudwa added.

Privacy Pains?

Facebook has denied reports that while its overall membership continues to grow, its membership in the United States is in decline.

"We know the numbers show a slight drop in active subscribers," Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

However, he doesn't think this is tied to the overall privacy issues the site grapples with on a seemingly regular basis.

"It's probably more of a case of Facebook fatigue," Howe said. "People get tired of always updating their pages and reading other people's entries."


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