Facebook has been quietly releasing facial recognition software, which will allow users to easily identify people appearing in their photos. The technology, which is already available in the US, has now been released on other countries with a strong Facebook presence, the company announced on Tuesday.
In April, Google announced that it has developed facial recognition technology that allows it to identify users, but that it would not be releasing it due to privacy concerns. The truth is that it already uses facial recognition technology on its Picassa photo sharing website, so what Google really meant that it would not be using similar technologies for its other services. Smartphone users would not be able to use the same technology that allows them to scan barcodes or read and translate texts to scan the faces of people they run into in the street and find out whatever publicly available personal information they can about them. We were spared a Big Brother moment, or at least that moment was put on hold.
Google’s concern was that this was the ultimate invasion of privacy. Former CEO Eric Schmidt warned that it was “too creepy,” even for the world’s largest search engine, adding that even if his own company’s intentions for developing the technology were well-intentioned, there were others who might ”cross the line,” and that that he found this to be, “very concerning.” Google would not be the first to use it.
Facebook broke the unofficial taboo by quietly releasing the technology to its US and later users. The feature is now available at “Tag Suggestions.” Facebook added that it is only available for new photos, that only a user’s friends are suggested, and that the feature can be disabled. The final tagging is only done by the user, as well, but as the Sophos blog Naked Security points out, “rather creepily Facebook is now pushing your friends to go ahead and tag you.” It also points out that Facebook does not offer users the right to pre-approve tags of themselves in Facebook photos. “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,” writes Sophos’s Graham Cluley.
Sophos is one of the leading developers of security software and hardware, with headquarters in England and Boston. The company has long challenged Facebook’s security measures, or at least the public’s perception of those measures.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, is similarly concerned about the technology, with President Marc Rotenberg asking what personally identifiable information is associated with the faces identified and stored in Facebook’s databases. He said he plans to study the technology further before considering his group’s response. The Center has already lodged a complaint with the FTC about other Facebook practices that it considers an invasion of personal privacy.
Meanwhile, concerns about the newly announced technology are already making waves beyond the tech world. Time Magazine’s Erica Ho released a blog post today with instructions on how to prevent Facebook from recognizing your face in photos. Bloomberg reports that data-protection regulators from the EU are also investigating the feature,