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Facebook facial recognition could get creepy

Megan Geuss | April 27, 2011
New facial recognition technology could have interesting applications and scary possibilities.

Facial recognition in a social networking context is not particularly new. Third-party app builders have been offering face detection on Facebook since entered the scene in 2009 with its Photo Finder app, which scanned thousands of photos to find images in which the user appears but isn’t tagged. But the difference between third-party apps and Facebook’s new recognition feature is that the former have always required participants to actively opt in to the feature, whereas at Facebook the feature is turned on by default and requires the user first to learn that it's in use, and then to expressly opt out. Even then, Facebook’s servers don’t lose the information they've acquired for associating your face with your name. They just comply with your request not to use it for the time being.

Despite the service's need to make users feel at ease about these changes, some comments from Facebook's management over the past few months have been confusing and a little defensive, adding to the impression that the company is easing in a feature that could generate negative reactions later. In September 2010, Facebook revealed that it would recognize and group similar faces together. During a public announcement regarding the new features, Sam Odio, the newly hired product manager of Facebook Photos, said "This isn't face recognition […] Picasa and iPhoto--they'll detect a face and say, 'This is Sam,' and they'll suggest that it's Sam. We're not doing that. We're not linking any faces to profiles automatically. Right now, we want to stay away from that because it's a very touchy subject." Apparently the subject wasn’t quite so touchy four months later, when Facebook started suggesting the names of friends in uploaded photos.

Some might argue that the facial recognition tagging feature actually gives users more privacy by increasing their chances of being tagged, and in that way discovering where their image is appearing and how it’s being used. But for some, the worry is less about how friends might use your photos and more about how Facebook could use your information--and give others access to it. Even if you choose to disable the 'Suggest photos of me to friends' option, Facebook will still have the technical ability to connect your name with your image. And even when Facebook doesn’t suggest the name of your friend, picking out a face and asking you to tag it is essentially the same thing as offering the name of your friend, except that it enlists you as a participant in the process. “Facebook is being really clever about it […] they're not assigning names with it, but the minute you assign a name to it you've completed the recognition,” says Marisol MacGregor, head of marketing at Viewdle, a company that specializes in making lightweight facial recognition technology.


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