Facing Facts: Facebook's Facial Recognition

Newsflash: Facebook knows your face. And if you're not careful, it might identify your face to other people who also know your face, as well as to their friends (who might not).

This seems to have some people in a tizzy. Last December, Facebook announced it was implementing facial recognition technology that will scan images as they're uploaded, find similar images others have uploaded, and suggest name tags based on other tags it found during its scan.

facebook photo tag suggestions

So if you've been tagged in dozens of photos on Facebook and a friend of yours uploads one more, Facebook will (theoretically at least) suggest that friend identify you in that picture.

Though it announced that feature last December, it wasn't widely available until recently. Now that it is, people are upset - primarily because, in classic Facebook fashion, they turned this feature on by default instead of asking users' permission first. The European Union, for example, is looking into whether this breaks one of its 3,297* privacy laws.

Facebook, Facebook, Facebook: Will you ever learn?

I might be upset too, if I could ever get the damned thing to work. I uploaded a half dozen mugshots of my own to Facebook from two of my dummy accounts. Facebook suggested nothing about who I was. There's probably some minimum threshold for tags that I don't meet. Or maybe they just don't like me.

[ See also: Weinergate: Five lessons in stupidity . ]

Of course, your friends don't have to take Facebook's suggestion and tag you. If they do, Facebook sends you an alert so you can remove the tag. You can also remove your face from consideration by adjusting your privacy settings thusly:

facebook photo tag privacy controls

  1. Go to Account*Privacy Settings.
  2. Click "Customize settings."
  3. Scroll down to "Suggest photos of me to friends" and click the Edit Settings button.
  4. Click the box where it says "Enabled" and select "Disabled."
  5. Click "Okay" and return to your previously scheduled activities, already in progress.

There are two real problems here, and neither one of them is the facial recognition bit that's made everyone go all Minority Report over this.

The first problem is Facebook: Once again the default is always to share. A simpler, better solution would have been to present users with a quick splash screen at log on asking if they want this feature turned on or off. Facebook is constantly mucking about with how it handles news feeds and photos and whatnot; this would be small potatoes compared to that, and it would earn them a bunch of goodwill.

(On the positive side, Facebook did immediately apologize instead of trying to ignore the problem or act like we're all simpletons who must be schooled in the ways of the "new social norms." So that's a plus.)

The bigger problem is tagging itself. Letting other people tag photos can have unforeseen consequences. Say you're a Congressman who likes to post close-ups of himself in his underwear (I'm just picking this example at random). Exactly whose manhood is filling out those BVDs is still a matter of debate at this point. Once somebody tags it with a name, though, we all know whose Weiner it is.

If that's too silly, consider this real-world example. Until recently, I had a photo of a woman's undergarment (not mine) posted to my Facebook page. Without going into too many details, let me assure you it was all pretty innocent. Last week somebody tagged that photo with the name of the person who owned that particular undergarment. Suddenly it's not so innocent. The owner of said brassiere - now mortified that her name was associated with this image -- begged me to remove the photo, which I did.

Allowing other people to tag you at will can be problematic in all kinds of ways. Want to opt out of allowing friends to tag you? Tough. Facebook doesn't give you that option. All you can do is control who sees the things you're tagged in (friends, friends of friends, etc) or remove the tags one by one. By default, Facebook notifies you when you're tagged - but who has time to keep up with all their Facebook emails? I certainly don't.

That's the real problem, not facial recognition. It's just not sci-fi enough to scare people.

* I'm exaggerating, slightly.

TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan does not wear ladies undergarments, but if he did he certainly wouldn't post them to Facebook. Visit his eHumor site eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @ tynan_on_tech .

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