Social networking giant Facebook has issued a statement in response to criticism over the roll out of its Tag Suggestions feature, which uses facial recognition technology to suggest names of users’ friends in photos.

Facebook informed users that the feature had been enabled in the US in December 2010. However, the company has since switched the feature on by default in other countries, without informing its users first. The issue was flagged by IT security firm Sophos, which yesterday encouraged Facebook users to review their privacy settings.

‘Should have been more clear’

“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,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested. If for any reason someone doesn’t want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their Privacy Settings.

“When we announced this feature last December, we explained that we would test it, listen to feedback and iterate before rolling it out more broadly. We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them. Tag Suggestions are now available in most countries and we’ll post further updates to our blog over time,” the spokesperson added.

Facebook has now updated the blog it posted back in December, to inform people about the roll-out. It explains that Tag Suggestions uses facial recognition to compare new photos that are being uploaded to match with the people in photos that have been previously uploaded.

However, this does not change the fact that many people feel uneasy about Facebook’s use of facial recognition software.

“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’.”

Privacy by default

Back in April, Sophos posted an open letter to Facebook taking the company 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.

Sophie Curtis

View Comments

  • Don`t you think it`s funny our government can`t even obtain this kind of information about it`s citizens without a court order, but facebook and other social networking site have been given the latitude? Why not, for the government it`ll be like going to the library and avoid dealing with the ACLU, Lawsuits, etc., Wait is this the facebook that has like buttons all over the web and can track your whereabouts? Not the same facebook that bowed to china, and doesn`t allow it`s chinese users to talk about politics and religion is it? the new alternative to facebook, No Real Names, No Email, No Tracking, No Facial Recognition.

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