Conn. AG Says Facebook Facial Recognition Software Violates Privacy

Connecticut state Attorney General George Jepsen wants a meeting with Facebook concerning its controversial use of facial recognition software for photo tagging, which advocates claim violates user privacy.

Facebook has another foe in its effort to make tagging friends easier with facial recognition software: Connecticut state Attorney General George Jepsen.

Jepsen said June 16 he is concerned that consumer privacy is being compromised by a feature that uses facial recognition to help the Website's 600 million-plus users easily tag photos.

"In Facebook's desire to promote photo sharing and tagging among its users, it appears to have overlooked a critical component of consumer privacy protection - an opt-in requiring users to affirmatively consent" before Facebook can use those images, Jepsen wrote in a letter to Facebook.

Facebook began using applying facial recognition software in its tag suggestions feature in the United States last December but only recently began rolling it out more broadly in other countries.

The controversial feature uses facial recognition software to identify Facebook users in photographs, links the photograph with the user's name and stores the information in Facebook's database.

Until tag suggestions, photo tagging was done manually on a per photo basis in Facebook. Tag suggestions group similar photos together, and Facebook suggested the name of the friend in photos. Users are notified when they've been tagged in photos.

Facebook only announced the feature change once before turning it on for buckets of users. This led some people to believe that the company was violating their privacy rights. What Facebook is guilty of is mishandling the messaging surrounding the feature because it should have let every user know when the tool was activated on his or her account.

The move galvanized the European Commission and privacy advocates in the United States who feel Facebook is taking liberties with users' privacy. Jepsen is the latest high-profile political figure to express his concern.

The AG wants a meeting with Facebook on the matter to ensure that Facebook will not use facial recognition data for commercial or marketing purposes and that the feature cannot be leveraged to gain access to sensitive user information. Asked about this, a Facebook person told eWEEK:

"We have been in contact with Attorney General Jepsen's office and are eager to provide clarification about tag suggestions and answer any questions he may have."

The spokesperson added that tag suggestions has received "almost no user complaints," for those who have used it, suggesting the majority of people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful.

Jepsen's letter came nearly one week after the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other advocates filed a complaint about Facebook's move with the Federal Trade Commission, a move that drew support from Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus.

EPIC and Markey suggested Facebook should make tag suggestions a voluntary feature users must explicitly opt-in to use, rather than opt-out. Jepsen agreed.

"The lack of an opt-in process for Facebook users is troubling because unknowing consumers may have their photos tagged and matched using facial recognition software without their express consent, potentially exposing them to unwelcome attention and loss of privacy," Jepsen wrote.