Facebook facial recognition. How it looks, fact and myth, and how we would fix the problems.

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Facebook facial recognition. How it looks, fact and myth, and how we would fix the problems.

If you haven’t already heard, Facebook has globally launched its facial recognition software this week.  And it’s caused quite a stir.  Facebook users are complaining bitterly, and the European Union data protection regulators are now launching a probe into the privacy implications of this new feature which no one can opt-out of.
So what is it all about?   Well Facebook is now using software to recognise every face in each of the 60 billion+ photos on the site.  You’ve probably seen this software already if you use a camera where a box hovers over the faces of people you’re taking a photo of.   That’s facial recognition. The difference is that Facebook wants to pin your name to your face, on every face that exists of you on Facebook.
If your face has been tagged even once in a photo uploaded to Facebook, that software will now be used to find and identify every other photo of you on the site.  Even if you aren’t tagged in any other photos, that software now knows which photos you are in.  But being tagged many times instead of just once means that the software has less chance of getting it wrong, and so to accompany the software Facebook added a new privacy setting to your account and activated it ‘Enabled’.  If enabled, the feature allows Facebook to group photos of you together and ask your friends if they want to tag them all as you.  To disable that privacy setting, just click ‘Edit Settings‘ next to ‘Suggest Photos Of Me To Friends‘.

  • Disabling ‘Suggest Photos Of Me To Friends‘ will not switch off facial recognition.
  • Disabling ‘Suggest Photos Of Me To Friends‘ will not stop people tagging you.
  • Disabling ‘Suggest Photos Of Me To Friendswill stop Facebook actively grouping photos of you among your friends photos and asking them if they want to tag them all as you.

This screenshot is an example of the facial recognition software.  After uploading photos to Facebook, a screen will highlight all the faces and you will be prompted to tag them:

Facebook’s rules – ‘You will not tag users without their consent’.
If it’s Facebook’s automated prompt which leads someone to tag you when they might not have thought to do so before, is Facebook then responsible for breaching terms if they don’t remind them to ask your permission first?  The screen says ‘Your friends can always untag themselves‘ but it doesn’t say ‘If you don’t ask before entering their name, you’re breaching our terms of service’.
Why doesn’t Facebook protect users better from its own tagging product?  Why doesn’t it ever enforce its own rules?  Users can’t stop themselves being tagged, they can only untag  after the fact.  They can’t even prevent themselves from being tagged in scams.   Now Facebook is finding faces everywhere and prompting people to tag them, knowing full well that as soon as they do they will be breaking the rules.  Why?

As you can see in the screenshot, each face in this one photo has been highlighted, and Facebook then asks ‘Who is this?‘ You may only tag people in your friend’s list.  Just remember that anyone authorized to see that photo can tag whoever they know in it too.  And that will allow them to see your photo regardless of your privacy settings, and yes once again you can only untag them after the fact.
Facial recognition is already out there.  Your face is already in a database.  The photo on your passport/ ID card or drivers licence is stored in Government databases, and will be cross referenced along with millions of others when for instance police try to identify someone in a crime scene photo or cctv footage.  But I’m not a criminal.  I’m just on Facebook to catch up with friends, and share some stuff.   It’s a social network, not a federal database, (we hope).  Why can’t Facebook let me decide if I want to sit this particular game out, and prevent myself being tagged if I want to?
Some people might love this idea and be happy that their friends can just click their name against 100 photos of them, and that’s great.  Got nothing but love for them.    And Facebook’s innovations are tremendous.  It’s the execution of those innovations which is just getting a little too creepy.  I’d prefer to just go about my day without being tagged in stuff I didn’t approve of first, thanks.  Mark Zuckerberg claims that he understands users want control of their online activity.  How am I in control if I can’t stop anyone tagging me?  How am I in control if Facebook is actively pushing my friends to tag me in any photos they upload of me, without warning them to ask me first?  And will the majority of Facebook users now decide that this is one discomfort too far and demand that Facebook switch it off?

The fix is so very simple.  Allow users to approve tags.  If your friend uploads a photo of you and Facebook says ‘Who is this’, they enter your name and a tag request is placed.  Rather like a friend request.  You get shown a thumbnail of the photos your friends want to tag you in, and you press ‘Accept’ or ‘Deny’.  If someone tags themselves or people they know in your photos, Facebook notifies you and you can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.   Simple. No terms are breached. No one is tagged in anything they don’t want to be.  No one is tagged in your photos without your final say. 
Wouldn’t that make it all better?  If you think so, please kindly pass the suggestion on to Facebook.

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