Facebook Facial Recognition Draws EPIC Privacy Concern

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 suspend the program and require that automated identification based on user photos requires 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 June 13. "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 Personalization," and the use of cookies by Facebook to track users' 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 permission.