EPIC and Congressman Edward Markey complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook abused users' privacy rights with its new facial recognition feature for tagging photos.
Facebook is facing pressure from the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, other consumer advocates and Congress members over its use of facial
recognition software for its tag suggestions feature in its photo application.
When users upload new photos, Facebook scans them with
facial recognition software to match new photos to other photos a user is
tagged in. Similar photos are then grouped together, with Facebook suggesting
the name of the friend in photos.
Facebook revealed plans
to use facial recognition in its tag suggestions feature last
December. The original launch was contained to the United States, but the
company recently changed its privacy settings to enable the tag suggestions
feature more broadly -- without explicitly warning users of its intentions.
However, tag suggestions are only made to people when
they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested. Moreover, all suggestions
can be ignored and if someone doesn't want their name to be suggested to their
friends, they can disable the feature in their privacy settings.
Still, that wasn't enough to mollify privacy advocates. The
European Union data protection agency opened a probe
versus the social network
over the feature, EPIC lodged a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
that Facebook's service was unfair and deceptive.
EPIC, along with Consumer Watchdog, Center for Digital Democracy and
the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, asked the FTC to force Facebook to
program and require that automated identification based on user photos
opt-in consent from the social network's users.
"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 argued
in its complaint
EPIC also said it was concerned that, without FTC
intervention, Facebook could expand the use of its facial recognition information
store in ways that users may not be able to control across the 60 billion photos uploaded to the social network.
The grievance was supported by Congressman Edward J.
Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, who
called for Facebook to make the service opt in instead of opt out.
"The Federal Trade Commission should investigate
this important privacy matter, and I commend the consumer groups for their
filing," Markey said
"When it comes to users' privacy, Facebook's policy should be: "'Ask
for permission, don't assume it.'"
Yet a Facebook spokesperson noted that the social network
has been slowly rolling out tag suggestions to its millions of users since last
December, after the company initially announced its intentions.
"This data, and the fact that we've had almost no
user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it
useful," the spokesperson told eWEEK. "For those who don't, we made
turning off tag suggestions easy and explained how to do so on our blog, in our
help center, and within the interface."
This isn't the first run-in Facebook has had with EPIC or
Markey. Markey and fellow Congressman Joe Barton
wrote to Facebook in May 2011 inquiring about a security flaw on Facebook that
provided advertisers and other third parties the capability to access Facebook
users' accounts and personal information.
EPIC and fourteen other organizations in May 2010 filed a
complaint with FTC, accusing Facebook of engaging in unfair and deceptive trade
practices by instituting social plugins and "Instant
internet activity, among other concerns.Facebook
has endured several privacy or user experience backlashes in the last
few years. Its first (and worst) major gaffe was a failed ad campaign
called Beacon that exposed users activities to their friends without