Facebook Alerting Users to Facial Recognition Privacy Setting With Home Page Ads

Facebook is now showing in-house ads on users’ home pages promoting its “Suggest photos of me to friends” facial recognition feature and linking users to the privacy setting that controls it. The in-house ads seem designed to counter criticism Facebook receives about a lack of transparency around the quiet worldwide rollout of the tag suggest feature worldwide last week. By adding a new privacy setting that defaulted to enable facial recognition, Facebook has drawn probes and complaints of some European privacy authorities and US advocacy groups.

The ads will help inform users and could be seen as a form of apology for the rollout of the controversial though rather benign feature, though they could also spark more backlash from users.

Users browsing the home page may see an in-house ad in the right sidebar beneath the Upcoming Events section with the headline “Photos are better with Friends” and copy that reads “Tag suggest helps you tag your friends and find out when photos of you are posted. See your privacy settings.”

The ad doesn’t explain that the feature is based on facial recognition, though, which is the main reason that some users are concerned with it. Facebook typically uses in-house ads to promote its own products such as Facebook Credits or its mobile apps, and doesn’t usually use them to draw attention to privacy settings.

Facebook initially launched the opt out facial recognition feature in North America in December with a Facebook blog post, and there wasn’t much of a reaction. However, last week Facebook rolled out the feature to the rest of the world, including privacy-sensitive countries in Europe, without a formal announcement. This led security software developer Sophos to attack Facebook, and many publications followed suit.

An update to the original Facebook Blog post and updates to some of Facebook’s official Pages were published shortly afterwards, but they were too late to stop the negative press. The next day, the European Union’s privacy authority and Ireland’s data protection authority both launched investigations into the feature, and America’s Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

In reality, the feature is not as dangerous as some make it out to be. It simply streamlines the process of a user tagging their closest friends in photos they’ve uploaded, and it doesn’t identify people you don’t know or allow users to search for someone across Facebook’s huge photo set. It can help users by increasing the likihood they’ll be tagged in photos in which they’re depicted so they know the photos exist and can request the uploader delete them if necessary. Still, Facebook could have been more transparent regarding the rollout, especially considering the public scrutiny it receives on such issues.

A more complex question is whether Facebook should add new default-enabled privacy settings without giving users the opportunity to opt out before they launch. Since many users rarely check their privacy settings, adding features as opt in would probably lead few new features to benefit from them. Therefore, the best option might to be for the site to launch features as opt in, but alert users prior to the launch and offer a preemptive opt out.

These ads, if run alongside the worldwide rollout or even prior to it could have saved Facebook from what turned out to be a PR problem. In the future, similar ads could help Facebook continue to launch new features and opt out privacy settings while appearing forthcoming rather than sneaky.