European data protection officials are looking into whether Facebook violated any of their privacy laws when the company introduced a new facial recognition feature that automatically scans uploaded photographs and tries to match faces and tag them with names plucked from account holders’ lists of friends.Though the feature is relatively old, and was enhanced and rolled out last December in the United States, it has sparked off a flurry of surprised reactions across the internet after an influential British security blogger on Tuesday brought the enhanced feature to wider attention.
The problem, as Sophos’ Graham Cluey noted on Sophos’ Naked Security blog, is compounded by the fact that that the default is that people appearing in photos get tagged automatically by their friends, and they don’t have the ability to pre-approve the tags.
You might have shown up in a party pic before when your friend uploaded it to their Facebook account, and your friend might have tagged you, but now the whole process is automated with the facial recognition technology, which suggests tags to the account holder.
Again, this tagging feature has been around for awhile, but as with previous privacy panics sparked off by Facebook’s new feature roll-outs, the problem is that Facebook recently enabled it as a default across Europe without providing account holders with any prior notice — a mode of operating that has become routine at the company.
“Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default,” Gerard Lommel, a European regulator told Bloomberg. “Such automatic tagging “can bear a lot of risks for users” and the group of European data protection officials will “clarify to Facebook that this can’t happen like this.”
Cluley provides instructions on how to disable the feature, as does Life Hacker.
“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather Facebook not go around telling everyone to tag me in their pictures, especially if they’re of the less flattering variety,” writes Life Hacker’s Whitson Gordon.
Facebook says that its users place more than a 100 million tags everyday on their Facebook photos.
“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,” Facebook said in an e-mail statement to TPM. “We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them.”