Article first published as Facebook Facial Recognition Feature Creates Uproar, Reignites Privacy Debate on Technorati.
In his 1983 standup special Himself, comedic legend Bill Cosby talks about children and his belief that all of them must suffer from brain damage. “If you know you’re not supposed to do something and then you do it and people say, ‘Why did you do it?’ And you say, 'I don’t know’ [that’s] brain damage,” says Cosby.
Today, we discover yet another child with apparent brain damage; Facebook. The seven-year-old social network finds itself in the midst of yet another privacy debate, this time over its worldwide roll-out of facial recognition technologies with users’ Facebook photos.
The new feature, which has been available in the United States since December, allows users to upload photos to their accounts and have the site make suggestions for whom among a user’s friends should be tagged based on other photos currently on the site. As with all new features introduced by Facebook, it’s automatically turned on in users’ privacy settings and requires users to manually opt-out if desired.
Cue the upheaval.
As Geoffrey Fowler points out in today’s Wallstreet Journal, the technology reignites a longstanding debate among privacy advocates who argue that new features like this one should be opt-in and require user consent before being activated, not the other way around.
“Our concern, as usual, is that Facebook is making changes to its privacy and creating new features without giving people sufficient notice and giving them a choice as to whether they want to participate,” said Chris Conley, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA) agreed. In a statement posted to his website Wednesday, Markey wrote:
“If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims, it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users’ privacy settings without their permission.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg has historically defended such practices arguing that requiring users to opt-in to each new feature would diminish their Facebook experience. In a statement released today on their blog, the company admitted they should have been more clear explaining the feature to users in an effort to avoid confusion and that they are working to “satisfy concerns” brought forward by lawmakers and privacy advocates. The statement also touts the feature as a time saver for the more than 100 million photos tagged by Facebook users on a daily basis.
While Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes contends that the company has received “almost no user complaints” about the facial recognition feature, he mistakenly equates that lack of complaint with the belief that “people are enjoying the feature and finding it useful.” How can someone be expected to complain about something when they aren’t even aware of its existence? Making users aware of new features and their implications after they’ve gone live should be one of Facebook’s top priorities. Consider it one of my top suggestions to improve Facebook.
Instructions for disabling the facial recognition feature can be found here.
Anyone seen any tagged photos on Facebook of Rep. Anthony Weiner?