By Damien Gayle
Facebook is at the centre of another privacy row after bringing in facial recognition technology to automatically identify users in pictures.
The world’s leading social network has begun rolling out new technology that automatically identifies and ‘tags’ people in photos uploaded to the website.
The feature has been expanded from a limited test run in the U.S. to be widened across all of the States and ‘most countries’, Facebook said on its official blog yesterday – and, by default, it’s turned on.
Facebook’s ‘Tag Suggestions’ feature is designed to speed up the process of labeling friends in photos posted on Facebook.
If a friend ‘tags’ you in one photo, the technology will automatically scan your face and then try and find matches among all their pictures.
It will then suggest that they ‘tag’ these photos of you as well.
The sudden implementation of the feature, without warning, has sparked concerns among privacy campaigners.
Daniel Hamilton, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘Facebook users will rightly be alarmed to hear that their private information will be used in this way. This is yet another nail in the coffin for online privacy.
‘Websites like Facebook owe it to their users to respect their privacy, not to scan their photo albums with facial recognition software.’
And not all commentators are convinced that opting out will do you any good.
Sarah Jacobsson Purewal, of PC World magazine, said: ‘Opting out won’t keep Facebook from gathering data and recognizing your face – it’ll just keep people from tagging you automatically.’
She also warns: ‘Facial recognition technology will ultimately culminate in the ability to search for people using just a picture.
‘And that will be the end of privacy as we know it–imagine, a world in which someone can simply take a photo of you on the street, in a crowd, or with a telephoto lens, and discover everything about you on the internet.’
Internet security consultant firm Sophos first reported the change yesterday, after Facebook users reported that the site had enabled the facial recognition option in the past few days without giving users any notice.
‘Yet again, it feels like Facebook is eroding the online privacy of its users by stealth,’ wrote Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, in a blog post.
Facebook, which announced in December that it planned to introduce the service in the U.S., acknowledged that the feature was in fact now more widely available.
When asked about the Sophos blog post, a spokesman for the company conceded that they ‘should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process’.
They made clear that tag suggestions would only be made to friends of those pictured, and that the users can switch off the feature to stop their names being put forward.
But Marc Rotenberg, President of the non-profit privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, noted that other companies had offered more users more control when implementing facial recognition features.
He highlighted Apple’s iPhoto software, which let users decide whether or not to use the technology with their personal photo collections.
Facebook’s technology, by contrast, operates independently, analysing faces across a broad swathe of newly uploaded photos.
Mr Rotenberg said such a system raised questions about which personally identifiable information, such as email addresses, would become associated with the photos in Facebook’s database.
He also criticised Facebook’s decision to automatically enable the facial-recognition technology for Facebook users.
‘I’m not sure that’s the setting that people would want to choose. A better option would be to let people opt in,’ he said.
A serious concern intially expressed over Facebook and other social networks is the ability to publish photographs online without any express permission from those pictured.
Although it is possible for users to ‘de-tag’ themselves, those pictured cannot demand photographs removed.
The new feature will raise fears among those who have photographs they would prefer do not come to light.
Sarah Jacobsson Purewal suggests as well as switching off facial recognition that users post random pictures of trees and stuffed animals and tag them with their name.
A spokesman from Facebook said: ‘We launched Tag Suggestions to help people add tags of their friends in photos; something that’s currently done more than 100 million times a day.
‘Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested.’
It emerged last week that Google recently decided to hold back a similar application that would have let someone snap a picture of a person’s face using a smartphone, then use the internet to find out who that person is.
Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt told a conference he believed it was the first time his company’s engineers had completed a project and shelved it for privacy reasons, CNN reported.
Last year the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint about Facebook’s privacy practices with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which Mr Rotenberg said was still pending.