When you hear the words “facial recognition” what comes to mind? High level security? A James Bond movie? If your answer was “Facebook”, then you’d be correct. As Facebook rolls out a new facial recognition feature, security companies warn users to adjust their privacy settings.
The first questions that come to mind are: what is facial recognition and what on earth is Facebook using it for? Facial recognition is a new technology that’s being slowly implemented by Facebook to help identify photos of you throughout the site. The idea is that it will make tagging faster and easier. On a blog post on June 7th, Facebook noted: “When you or a friend upload new photos, we use face recognition software – similar to that found in many photo editing tools – to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. We group similar photos together and, whenever possible, suggest the name of the friend in the photos.”
Facebook believes many users will find the new feature useful:
“Now 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.”
However, security company Sophos isn’t convinced the ease is worth the security risk. Sophos specializes in web security, and notes on its blog that “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.” So, if you don’t disable the feature, your friends will be encouraged to tag you in photos and if you don’t like what they’ve posted, you will be forced to go through and manually un-tag each image.
Facebook would argue the solution is easy enough: opt out of the feature. The blog post notes: “If for any reason you don’t want your name to be suggested, you will be able to disable suggested tags in your Privacy Settings”. However, this seems to ignore two much larger issues.
The first major issue, which Sophos notes, is that instead of users opting into facial recognition, they must opt out. In other words, sharing personal information is a default setting. Of course, this is true with just about everything on Facebook. Their policy is sharing, and if you don’t want to share, you a) may be on the wrong social network and b) need to get to know your privacy settings.
However, a large concern with the new technology is the consequences of facial recognition more broadly. See someone at a bar you like? Why not take a picture of them and search their information later, using facial recognition to identify them? What’s stopping a thief from doing the same? It’s more than a little scary. And while users can opt out of having their name suggested to friends, that doesn’t necessarily mean Facebook won’t search them. It only means Facebook won’t suggest them.
While there is no point in standing in the way of technology’s forward momentum, Facebook’s huge gallery of photos makes their addition of facial recognition more than a simple new feature. It`s a step in the direction of a whole new level of privacy concerns.