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Facebook quietly rolls out facial-recognition tool

America was the guinea pig for the facial-recognition tool that is turned on by default, but now the feature is available in most countries.

Boonsri Dickinson
Boonsri Dickinson is a multimedia journalist who covers science, technology, and start-ups. She is a contributing editor at CBS SmartPlanet, and her work has appeared in Wired, New Scientist, Technology Review, and Discover magazine. E-mail Boonsri.
Boonsri Dickinson
3 min read

"Weinergate" reminds us yet again that photos can quickly become embarrassing, and even scandalous.

For this and other reasons, many consider it important to have control over who sees their photos. Facebook may be further pushing users' sense of privacy limits with its latest privacy setting change: it has quietly rolled out a facial-recognition tool that will automate photo tagging and suggest friends to tag in your photos based on what they look like.

According to a report from IT security firm Sophos, the facial-recognition tool previously launched in the United States but is now available in most countries.

suggested tags
The "suggested tags" interface that appears on Facebook when a user uploads photos. Facebook

According to Facebook, people are adding 100 million photos to Facebook each day. In a blog post, the company said users have called tagging a chore. True, it can certainly feel like it when you have to manually type in who your friend is and tag every picture in the album. Tag suggestions are made when people add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested.

"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," a Facebook spokesperson told CNET in an e-mail today. "We should have been more clear with people during the rollout process when this became available to them. Tag suggestions are now available in most countries and we'll post further updates to our blog over time."

Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser at Sophos, isn't surprised by the way Facebook introduced the technology. "This is their standard method. They do it secretly and see if the uproar is loud enough. Previously, they've made addresses and phone numbers available to developers but backed out once people made a ruckus about it. This time, they tested [the facial-recognition feature] out on Americans, who are the least privacy-aware."

If the feature, which is turned on automatically by default, makes you feel uneasy, you can disable it by going to the Privacy Settings in your Facebook account via "Suggest photos of me to friends."

If the facial-recognition feature is beneficial to users, then Facebook should at least let them know about the change, Wisniewski said. Even if you opt out of a privacy setting, and your friend doesn't, then your vacation photos can still be publicly available to a mutual friend or a lurking stranger who happens to stumble upon them. If you don't want all 60 photos of you in your bikini uploaded, then you'll have to untag them all manually.

"You're not a customer, you're a product," Wisniewski said. "With this facial-recognition feature, photos will be automatically indexed, which will help information spread more quickly."

Jules Polonetsky, director of the organization Future of Privacy, isn't as worried. "It hasn't raised the hackles of users in the six months this has been available in the U.S. because tags are suggested only based on pics that users already have access to," he said. "Facebook is using a fairly limited capacity of recognition compared to what is possible. Going further to identify pics based on other data the system has or third-party data would certainly create a backlash."

As Rep. Anthony Weiner learned, using social media can be dangerous: his crotch pic spread virally when he mistakenly sent it to his public stream instead of in a private message. Google similarly dealt with privacy issues when it introduced Buzz, which exposed Gmail users' main contacts to the world.

In the meantime, as privacy settings in social networks continue to evolve, it's best to keep the underwear shots for more, well, private correspondence.