Google's Opt-In Facial Recognition Avoids Facebook's Missteps

Google+ Find My Face is an opt-in service that uses facial recognition for photo tagging. Facebook launched its service as opt-out, which is why Google is trying to score points with privacy aficionados.

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) quiet introduction of facial recognition for its photos application on Google+ is drawing praise from analysts and security researchers alike because it stands in stark contrast to the way Facebook employed similar technology earlier this year.

That is, it's opt-in. Google's Find My Face feature lets its Google+ social network users opt-in to photo tagging. When users opt-in to Find My Face, the next time one of their Google+ contacts adds a photo they're in, they'll see their name as a suggested tag. Users will receive a tag prompt can accept or reject any instance where someone wants to tag them.

"Despite the fact that I am not comfortable with my information being gathered in this manner, providing people with a choice is never a bad thing," wrote Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at security software provider Sophos Canada. "It is up to every individual to make an *informed* choice about how their personal information is shared and asking their permission is the right approach."

If Find My Face sounds familiar it's because Facebook already beat Google to such a feature called Tag Suggestions, which automatically detects users in photos and links them with their names so that users don't have to manually tag friends.

The tool was actually announced a year ago, but some of Facebook's 800 million-plus users forgot about it. As Facebook gradually rolled Tag Suggestions out in 2011, it drew the ire of enough users for not advising them the feature had been turned on. People can be quite self-conscious about tagged photos because they can provide contextual information that users may want to keep private.

Privacy and U.S. Congressmen took notice. Last June, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Connecticut state Attorney General George Jepsen complained that Facebook should have provided more notice and should instead make the feature opt-in. Facebook then made the tool easier to opt out of, but it's still an opt-out feature.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment about whether Google looked at Facebook's photo-tagging folly for guidance with the way it implemented Find My Face. However, sources familiar with Google's thinking say the company has learned a lot from Facebook's privacy foibles, which is why it's being careful with Find My Face.

Google also learned a lot from its own social software privacy gaffe. Nearly two years ago, it launched Google Buzz, a social service that exposed its users Gmail contacts to other people. The company quickly altered the service but took a major hit to its reputation for preserving user data and trust.

Altimeter Group analyst Rebecca Lieb called Google's implementation of Find My Face a very smart move at a time when the company is trying to challenge Facebook for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of social network users.

"Google is not interested in making the same mistakes Facebook made," Lieb told eWEEK, adding that even creating the perception that they care about user privacy can go along with consumers. "They are ensuring users they have their privacy interests in mind."

The launch of Find My Face as an opt-in facial recognition tool conveniently came the same day the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a privacy workshop where it said it would take a hard line against companies that violate consumer privacy using facial recognition technology.