Facebook Facial Recognition Goes Where Google Doesn't Dare

Facebook is pushing the privacy boundaries again with its facial recognition technology in photo tagging software. The European Union is now taking the company to task over it.

Facebook finally flipped the switch on facial recognition technology to improve photo tagging software, and admitted it should have told users all over the world when it turned it on.

Now the company is facing a probe by European Union data protection users over the feature.

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 Sophos Security consultant Graham Cluley said the company recently changed its privacy settings to enable the tag suggestions feature.

Cluley wrote in a blog post June 7 that many Facebook users said that the site has enabled the option without giving users any notice.

Facebook engineer Justin Mitchell confirmed in a blog post June 7 that Facebook has been rolling out Tag Suggestions over the last several months and "this feature is now available in most countries."

"We notify you when you're tagged, and you can untag yourself at any time," Mitchell wrote. "As always, only friends can tag each other in photos."

Mitchell noted that users who don't want their name to be suggested can disable suggested tags in their Privacy Settings. Users must click "Customize Settings" and "Suggest photos of me to friends" so that their name will no longer be suggested in photo tags. However, friends will still be able to tag users manually.

A Facebook spokesperson acknowledged the company should have been more clear with people during the rollout process when this feature became available.

However, Cluley noted that Facebook should enable features that concern user privacy as opt-in instead of opt-out.

"Unfortunately, once again, Facebook seems to be sharing personal information by default," Cluley wrote. "Many people feel distinctly uncomfortable about a site like Facebook learning what they look like, and using that information without their permission."

The EU agreed. "Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people's prior consent and it can't be activated by default," said Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, according to BusinessWeek.

This battle between opt-in and opt-out has been a key struggle for Facebook, which tends to roll out features and then asks for forgiveness instead of asking for permission beforehand. The practice underscores CEO Mark Zuckerberg's beliefs that users want to be social. In instances where the majority feel Facebook has crossed the privacy line, the company backs off.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said that Google has the capability to do facial recognition with its Google Goggles visual search application, but has abstained for fear of privacy backlash.

This reflects careful consideration by a company that found itself stung in 2010 by Google Buzz and Google Street View privacy gaffes.