Facebook Expands ‘Big Brother’ Automatic Face Recognition to Europe
Published on: June 10, 2011
(Agoura Hills, C.A.) Facebook, the immensely popular social media phenomenon, raised howls from European privacy watchdogs by expanding its new facial recognition feature beyond North America. The feature, which is enabled by default, attempts during the “tagging” process to match faces in uploaded photographs to user profiles. The technology, which is currently ill-equipped to cope with group photographs, has been deployed since late 2010 for customers in the United States.
Apple offers a similar feature at its iPhoto service; Google’s Picasa service has it as well. The backlash over the feature as implemented by Facebook has focused primarily on the way the company has chosen to quietly opt users into it without notification; critics have been further inflamed by the alleged difficulty of disabling it once activated. It hasn’t helped that Facebook’s upper management has exhibited what seems to critics to be an inability to comprehend the fuss. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Markey said, “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.”
A small but vocal clique of Facebook detractors have called the company’s handling of the affair “arrogant” and “creepy.” Graham Cluley, a blogger at the Internet security firm Sophos, has led the angry mobs carrying pitchforks and torches against what they perceive as a harbinger of Big Brother. In heated rhetoric, images of “Minority Report” and terrorist watch lists have been evoked.
As Facebook’s user base has grown, more than a few of its customers have reacted with consternation at what they see as overly aggressive data-sharing policies. Users often struggle to navigate obscure pathways to options for placing more restrictive limits on public access to private information. On Wednesday, data protection officials for the European Union responded to the noisy flap by saying that they would closely examine Facebook’s activities for violations of privacy regulations; in the United States, a group of privacy activists said it would register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Facebook admitted through a representative that the company could have handled the matter better, saying, “We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them.” Facebook has consistently maintained that it respects the privacy of users. The social media firm has had its high points; its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, hobnobbed briefly with U.S. President Barack Obama. The latest controversy, though, has lead some industry observers to wonder whether the company’s current management team possesses an inherent tendency to self-destructive behavior that ultimately might lead to a sudden collapse in market share and the rapid rise of an eager competitor more in tune with customer desires.
Customers concerned about protecting their personal privacy can disable the facial recognition feature with a labyrinthine procedure:
- Log into Facebook.
- Select “Privacy Settings” under the “Account” menu located at the top right.
- When the next page appears, click on “Customize settings” in the “Sharing on Facebook” section. This option appears next to a small blue pencil.
- In the next window, find “Suggest photos of me to friends” in the “Things others share” section, then click on the “Edit Settings” option.
- In the subsequent pop-up screen, select “Disabled” in the menu appearing at its top right.
- Click “Okay” to confirm the setting and to close the screen.
As citizens of the digital realm continue to be battered by the fast-moving currents of a confusing and occasionally frightening age of overwhelming information overload, it seems likely that missteps by Internet leaders will continue to perturb their users and lead to increasing official scrutiny of corporate privacy policies and practices.