Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy?

June 14, 2011

If your face is among the hundreds of millions of images on Facebook — by your own doing or not — you’ve got a stake in a worldwide debate over a technical change that has privacy advocates in a lather.

The colossal social network has been adding facial recognition software to its arsenal to automate the practice known as tagging, or adding people’s names to photos. Facebook already possesses a massive database of images connected to names that would continue to grow from the photos you add and the names you associate unless you specifically reject the practice.

Facebook has already acknowledged it is cooperating with regulators in the European Union, who have raised questions. And now the company is facing a call for an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and other privacy groups have joined together to file a complaint with the FTC after Facebook said it was using biometrics and had been rolling out the technology for months.

Facebook say there’s nothing wrong with what it’s doing and that for any user concerned about privacy issues there’s an easy out.

“We launched Tag Suggestions to assist people when they are tagging their friends in photos. We announced the tool in December 2010, and it was covered widely,” the company said in a statement. “Now that we have begun to roll this out more widely, we are notifying people of its availability, and how it works. Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested. No action is taken on a person’s behalf, and all suggestions can be ignored. ”

The company said the feature has already led to the addition of “hundreds of millions of tags. This data, and the fact that we’ve had almost no user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful.”

Even though Facebook has defended its new tool and says opting out is simple, critics suggest that it shouldn’t be on users to back out, but their choice to opt in.

One of the biggest risks is how the extraordinary amount of information “on Facebook can be used for unintended and unimagined purposes,” said Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist at Citrix Systems. “Data, such as profile information, friends, preferences and relationships are collected, correlated and interpolated. The result is an erosion of privacy and the very real possibility that you are labeled.”

What if, Roemer asked, you went to a restaurant and a security camera spotted you and then checked you in? Cool? Or scary?

“Imagine someone taking your picture on the street. If they’re a ‘friend of a friend’ — and connected to a Facebooker who leaves their profile rather open — that random stranger who was interested in you can easily find out who you are, who you hang out with, where you go, and what your routine is — basically anything shared online,” he said. “Find someone walking down the street and instantly know everything about them? It’s creepy.”

The privacy issues will only compound, Roemer said, once police and lawyers start to try to access the information to search for certain people by their descriptions.

“The possibilities for using this information are boundless,” he said.

Privacy advocates also raise the alarm over control, or more specifically, your lack of it — particularly if you’re not a Facebook user.

You can set Facebook’s controls to stop tagging photos of you, but you can’t click a button to take back what has already been done or stop Facebook from compiling it all on its own. Facebook in its FAQ does include a provision that allows consumers to email the company to remove “photo summary information” about themselves.

Critics say Facebook has stacked the deck against consumers, taking away too much control and allowing the company to all these identified and cataloged images to its already staggering collection of personal information.

EPIC said the photo practices is a deceptive trade practice and has asked the FTC to suspend Facebook’s collection of the data and launch a full investigation into the practice. “Users could not reasonably have known that Facebook would use their photos to build a biometric database in order to implement a facial recognition technology under the control of Facebook,” EPIC said in its complaint.

A spokesman for the FTC said the agency received the complaint, but would have no further comment.

If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with the whole idea, you can, at a minimum, disable the tagging function so Facebook’s robots aren’t running around tagging your name on photos  they spot. Here’s how to do it:

  • Go to “Account” on the upper right side of Facebook and choose “Privacy Settings” from the drop-down menu.
  • Choose “Customize Settings.”
  • Then pick “Suggest photos of me to friends.”
  • Click “Edit Settings” and choose “Disabled” and click “Okay.”

While you’re in your privacy settings, have a look, for the sake of your privacy. You’ll see just how freely your information can flow. Can everyone see it or just your friends? Can others “check you in” to places and show where you are? This is where you’ll find all that info and where you can dial it back if you care to.

Just remember that today a quick search of a person’s name can deliver a lot information, including a photo of you at that party last Saturday doing something you might not remember. And, by the way, the company you’d like to work for is looking at it right now.

Make sure you know what your privacy settings are so that sort of scenario doesn’t crop up and bite you as it has so many others who haven’t realized how many people could see their personal information.

A spokesman for the FTC said the agency received the complaint, but would have no further comment.

11 comments

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[…] Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy?Reuters Blogs (blog)If your face is among the hundreds of millions of images on Facebook — by your own doing or not — you've got a stake in a worldwide debate over a technical change that has privacy advocates in a lather. The colossal social network has been adding …Facebook Watch: Privacy Group Files FTC Complaint Over Facial RecognitionDeath and Taxes Facebook: 100k Brits bored with site deactivate accounts amid privacy fearsDaily MailPrivacy groups push for US Facebook probeComputerworldPC Magazine -ERE Media -Wall Street Journal (blog)all 124 news articles » Categories: Facebook News 14 June 2011 at 11:20 – Comments […]

Posted by Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy? – Reuters Blogs (blog) – Facebook Is Down | Report as abusive

[…] easily tag photos of their friends. Of course, as with almost everything Facebook does, … Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy?Reuters Blogs (blog)Facebook Watch: Privacy Group Files FTC Complaint Over Facial RecognitionDeath […]

Posted by There Really Are Privacy Issues Out There; Facebook Using Facial Recognition … – Techdirt – Facebook Is Down | Report as abusive

[…] original article: Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy? – Reuters Blogs (blog) […]

Posted by Facebook photo tagging: Cool or creepy? – Reuters Blogs (blog) « Technology « Direct Global Media | Report as abusive

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Posted by 5 Possible Reasons US Users Are Ditching Facebook – PCWorld | facebook profit secret | Report as abusive

“unless you specifically reject the practice” … sad that one must opt-OUT of being violated.

There is one fix … quit facebook. It is possible to delete your account … it is not immediate, but requires 14 days to do … but it is possible. Explicitly delete all of your pictures, notes, personal data before, and then execute the delete. Get your friend’s email addresses one way or another …. yahoo provides a way to get all of their email addresses by populating a yahoo account contact list from facebook (maybe, itself, an evil). Then find another way to share what you want to share.

Posted by tomwinans | Report as abusive

[…] Reasons US Users Are Ditching FacebookPCWorldWhat Facebook fails to recogniseThe Guardian Reuters Blogs (blog) -Computerworld -Daily Mailall 61 news articles » Categories: Facebook News […]

Posted by Facebook hires D.C. insiders – Seattle Post Intelligencer – Facebook Is Down | Report as abusive

“critics suggest that it shouldn’t be on users to back out, but their choice to opt in.” I’ve been trying to push this agenda for years. Not just with FB, but with other sites as well to include banks & credit card companies. We consumers need some sort of protection. When we are deliberately put in a compromising situation by some corporate entity, what are we to do? Suffer our losses while they profit from them? If we as consumers are being forced to be more responsible, then give us that responsibility by allowing us to opt in or out to our benifit.

Posted by IronCityFan | Report as abusive

Facebook is not the place for privacy. You have already opted out of that protection by joining the site. Why anyone would post something to the internet and then complain that people could see it is beyond my understanding. If you’re concerned about privacy, don’t post those things to Facebook in the first place. The “friend of a friend” scenario laid out in the article above is only possible if you’ve gone out of your way to make your account visible to everyone. Just keep your settings to “friends only” and you’ll be fine.

Posted by TrueIronPatriot | Report as abusive

Wrong, ‘TrueIronPatriot.’ The scenario is not as you’ve said ‘only possible if you’ve gone out of your way’ to make it visible to people outside your circle; that’s the whole point of the article and this discussion is that websites make the default a loss of privacy that you don’t know you’re getting into, when the default should be higher privacy with the option to lower it, as you incorrectly think is already the case.

The whole appearance of getting set up on Facebook, the way it’s presented to the user, since you CHOOSE who your friends are, who to let in, is that you’re having a conversation with your own people, that there is a level of privacy and exclusiveness based on your real life relationships that does not exist on most of the internet. That is extremely contrary to the situation where a stranger on the street can log on and figure out who you were just because they just saw your face.

Posted by dvstllrd | Report as abusive

What happens to people without Facebook accounts who become tagged?

Posted by iSpy | Report as abusive

“If your face is among the hundreds of millions of images on Facebook — by your own doing or not — …”

So, if someone loads a picture up with me in it and tags my picture once, facebook suggests my name when it recognizes my picture (or one that looks like me) whether I am on facebook or not?

That’s certainly sounds like how the technology works.

That would allow any facebook member to post a picture of anyone, slap a fake name on it like “Osama Bin Laden”, and cause someone no end of grief.

On the other hand, it will definitely make it easier for Iran, North Korea, and other police states to identify and hunt down “enemies of the state,”

Excellent work Facebook!

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Anonymous”

Posted by bobw111 | Report as abusive

Well, I guess it was not so hard to predict that Facebook would become the 21st century “Big Brother”…
Now I understand why this company has been outrageously valued in the billions. Pretty scary…

Posted by marusik | Report as abusive

Remember the famous line from the Eagle’s song, “You can check in, but you can never check out?”

Welcome to Hotel Facebook.

Quit, you say? Facebook owns everything up to the point you terminated! Your only hope, if the genie is out of the bottle, is to remain with Facebook until that genie is back where she belongs. In the interim, make your security privacy settings as tight as a flea’s behind.

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

If you are on Facebook – you deserve everything that you get. Facebook is a designed specifically to tear down privacy walls – its social networking. Wall Street is estimating that Facebook is worth billions of dollars – for what? Is anyone paying them for the service – no. Then what could they have that makes them so valuable? The answer is obvious, millions of users that freely give away their information. Facebook knows what every government does – information is power. You have millions of people that are too stupid to realize the value of their information and willing to freely provide it to those that will take advantage of them.

I can see a future where Facebook will be the single best tool for criminals. Consider the possibilities. Pedophiles will be able to find your children’s schools, routines, and even photos. Buglers will be able to find your home when you are on vacation. That crazy nut on the freeway can take a picture of your license plate and find out where you live or work. Employers that disagree with your political views or lifestyle choices will simply not call you back for a second interview.

And how did they get all this wonderful information about you – why you freely provided it to them. Wake up people.

Isn’t technology grand?

Posted by system_owner | Report as abusive

This article is so dead on! Just imagine if Hitler had access to Facebook!! We volunteer ourselves for what? Well just fun, and keeping connected. But none of us has any clue how far this tech can go. Do we? Just imagine if a country was to attack another and knew all there was know about the natives, before hand. They dont even have to ask, we just give it up freely. Hitler is very jealous that he did not have this luxury, scary huh? Just sayin.

Or what if FB sells info on the dl, without the public ever knowing. Your shopping, and the camera thats got you in its sites has identified you, and reported back to a database, that is collecting info on you. And it all started with fun and games call tagging!!

Posted by underneath | Report as abusive

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[…] fails to recogniseThe GuardianAnother voice: Facebook's face problemVictoria Times ColonistReuters Blogs (blog) -Computerworld -Washing ton Post (blog)all 80 news articles » Categories: […]

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[…] fails to recogniseThe GuardianAnother voice: Facebook's face problemVictoria Times ColonistReuters Blogs (blog) -Computerworld -Washing ton Post (blog) all 80 news articles » Categories: […]

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[…] GuardianAnother voice: Facebook's face problemVictoria Times Colonist Computerworld -Reuters Blogs (blog) -Washington Post (blog)all 85 news articles » Categories: Facebook News 16 […]

Posted by Facebook’s Facial Recognition Flops – PCWorld – Facebook Is Down | Report as abusive

No wonder the public doesn’t complain about the phone and email tapping powers the government has under the “Patriot” act — we are so conditioned to living in the fishbowl called Facebook. FB and FBI are becoming hard to distinguish.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

[…] Guardian Another voice: Facebook's face problemVictoria Times ColonistComputerworld -Reuters Blogs (blog) -Washington Post (blog) all 87 news articles » Categories: Facebook News 16 […]

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[…] off on Facebook I was greeted by another giant album of family photos that my aunt furiously tagged – with every other photo of myself taken during my ridiculously awkward and self perceived […]

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