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Facebook Quietly Rolls Out Face Recognition

Facebook’s tagging suggestions feature uses facial recognition technology, prompting privacy concerns

Social networking giant Facebook has reportedly enabled its ‘tag suggestions’ feature outside of the United States, but has switched the feature on by default without informing its users first.

The feature, which was rolled out in the US in December 2010, uses facial recognition software to match new photos to other photos users are tagged in. Similar photos are then grouped together, with Facebook suggesting the name of the friend in photos.

“Now, if you upload pictures from your cousin’s wedding, we’ll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name,” said Facebook engineer Justin Mitchell in a blog post announcing the US launch. “Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you’ll need to do is click ‘Save’ to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once.”

However, the idea of facial recognition software makes some people nervous, and IT security firm Sophos is now encouraging Facebook users to review their privacy settings.

Opt in or opt out?

“Many people feel distinctly uncomfortable about a site like Facebook learning what they look like, and using that information without their permission,” said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

“Most Facebook users still don’t know how to set their privacy options safely, finding the whole system confusing. It’s even harder though to keep control when Facebook changes the settings without your knowledge. Facebook users should have to ‘opt-in’ to the facial recognition feature, rather than the onus being on them to ‘opt-out’.”

Users can adjust their preferences using the privacy settings on their Facebook account. Those who want to disable the feature should go to ‘Customise settings’, and then under ‘Things others share’ you should see an option titled ‘Suggest photos of me to friends’. Click on ‘Edit settings’, change to ‘Disabled’ and click ‘OK’, (see image below).

Facebook and privacy

Back in April, Sophos posted an open letter to Facebook taking the social networking giant to task for its ongoing safety and privacy issues. Cluley wrote that privacy needs to be enabled by default, and Facebook has to stop sharing information without users’ express agreement. If users want to take advantage of the latest feature or get the partner information, they should be encouraged to opt in, instead of having to manually opt out, he said.

The letter followed Facebook’s announcement in January that developers would be able to collect users’ addresses and mobile phone numbers if users added the developers’ application. After a storm of protest, the company backed down and “temporarily” suspended the policy.

The company has also faced controversy over its ‘Like’ button and ‘Places’ feature. However, Facebook has hit back at criticism of its information sharing policies, claiming that users are always in control, and that sharing user details is always to improve their online experience.