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Gagging on Tagging: Facebook Facial Recognition Creeps Out Privacy Partisans

By Richard Adhikari
Jun 8, 2011 12:31 PM PT

Facebook has begun rolling out worldwide a tag suggestions feature that uses facial recognition software to automatically suggest tags for the faces appearing in new photos uploaded to its site.

Gagging on Tagging: Facebook Facial Recognition Creeps Out Privacy Partisans

The announcement has raised concerns that the feature will impinge upon users' privacy.

When a member uploads new photographs, the facial recognition software will match faces of people in the photo to other images on Facebook that are already tagged. It will then suggest the name of the person for use as a tag.

This will make it easier to tag multiple photos showing the same people at, for example, a party, Facebook contends.

"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 spokesperson Victoria Cassady told TechNewsWorld.

Tag Suggestions are "only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested," Cassady added. "If for any reason someone doesn't want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their privacy settings."

Disabling the suggested tags feature in Facebook Privacy Settings is a procedure this reporter found to be fairly simple.

Justification for Tag Suggestions

Every day, people add more than 100 million tags to photos on Facebook, the company said.

Apparently many members have told Facebook that tagging is a chore, but company spokesperson Cassady did not say how many complaints had been received when she was asked about this.

When users upload photographs, Facebook's facial recognition software will group similar faces together and automatically suggest the name a person in the photo should be tagged with, in the "Who is this?" box.

To accept, members just click the "Save Tags" button.

Members can opt out of tag suggestions by disabling the "suggest photos of me to friends" feature, Facebook vice president of product Chris Cox had said when he announced earlier in the year that the company would be rolling out the Tag Suggestions feature to U.S. users.

The Tag Suggestions feature is part of a process that began in October when Facebook added a group tagging feature, the company said.

Weaving a Tangled Web

However, it's unclear just how long Facebook has been using this technology on its network, where the technology has already been deployed, and how long some members may have been unknowingly using Facebook with the Tag Suggestions feature in play.

The topic of automatic tag suggestions was actually broached last December, when Facebook announced it was rolling out the feature to U.S. users that month.

"When we announced this feature last December, we explained that we would test it, listen to feedback and iterate before rolling it out more broadly," Facebook's Cassady explained. "We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them. Tag Suggestions are now available in most countries and we'll post further updates to our blog over time.

"They began in December within the U.S., and now it's being rolled out outside of the United States," Cassady said.

Facebook's blog post Tuesday on the Tag Suggestions feature began with the statement that it had been rolling out the feature "over the last several months" and it was "available in most countries."

However, later on in the post, it said it would be "debuting tag suggestions to users in the United States over the next few weeks."

This latter statement "is from the post in December," Cassady said.

Problems With the New Feature

The Tag Suggestion feature could raise other problems for Facebook.

For one thing, facial recognition software is widely acknowledged to be less than perfect. That could lead to the mis-identification of people, with perhaps unwelcome consequences.

"Because no face recognition system is 100 percent accurate, there is always the risk of misidentifying photos to be tagged," Charles Tappert, a professor at Pace University, told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook "has surely acquired a higher-performing face biometric system but, of course, could still encounter misclassifications, although grouping the photos as described should reduce such risks," Tappert added.

"If Facebook wants to offer this capability, they would be wise to put heavy and frequent disclaimers around it, much like novelty gifts that are highly unreliable," said Christopher Harget, director of enterprise markets worldwide at ActivIdentity.

Privacy Issues and Worse

"Consider the professional or personal ramifications if an embarrassing or illicit subject is mislabeled as a teacher, public servant or upstanding citizen," Harget told TechNewsWorld.

Further, this tag suggestion feature could constitute an invasion of privacy or worse.

"I have the right to control my identity on Facebook in many ways, but mostly in terms of what I post," Harget said.

There are things people might consider worse than an invasion of privacy.

"Consider the prospect of a battered spouse or a minor having photos posted and tagged which might give clues about where they live, work or go to school," Harget suggested.


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