Blog Post

Facebook facial recognition: What the web is saying

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Another week, another Facebook privacy firestorm. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based social networking giant came under fire once again this week for potentially violating users’ privacy, after online security firm Sophos issued an alert Tuesday that Facebook had quietly turned on facial recognition technology worldwide.

Facebook is using the technology to suggest how users should tag photos they add to the site. The company said last year that it had developed facial recognition capabilities, but at that time, it only announced plans to demo the feature with test groups in North America. This past week, users worldwide noticed that the technology had been switched on as an apparently wide scale launch — without any warning from the company.

Facebook soon confirmed in a company blog post that it had indeed begun rolling out the feature “in most countries.” Users can opt out of facial recognition by adjusting their privacy settings, but the feature is active by default.

The issue has set off privacy concerns at the highest levels — the European Union is reportedly set to probe the legality of the new feature — and the web is abuzz with opinions on whether Facebook’s use of face recognition technology is good, bad or just creepy. Here are some of the more salient points people are making:

  • Facebook’s default settings should prioritize privacy over openness, Sophos said in its blog post:

    “Most Facebook users still don’t know how to set their privacy options safely, finding the whole system confusing. It’s even harder though to keep control when Facebook changes the settings without your knowledge. The onus should not be on Facebook users having to “opt-out” of the facial recognition feature, but instead on users having to “opt-in”.

    The fact that facial recognition was made a default setting was also irksome to Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg-based member of the EU’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, who told BusinessWeek:

    “Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default.”

  • Even Facebook has admitted it should have handled the roll-out with more transparency. A company spokeswoman told the Register:

    “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. We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them.”

  • Facebook’s latest privacy fiasco has Google (s GOOG) smelling of roses. The search engine giant has said it has developed its own facial recognition technology, but has publicly expressed hesitancy to use it. SearchEngineLand editor Danny Sullivan says that’s not an accident:

  • But not everyone was freaked outby the feature. Software engineer Todd Kitta said all the hubbub was unwarranted:

  • And some people even like the addition. Robert Scoble commented on an article posted by TheNextWeb:

    “[Facial recognition] is the coolest thing Facebook has done for photos… because it saves me time. I personally turn on everything to be public. If I don’t want you to see it I sure won’t post it on Facebook anyway.”

    Social media strategist Clare Callery was similarly happy with the new feature:

  • And of course, some just used the news as an excuse to crack wise:

If you have any thoughts about Facebook’s facial recognition rollout, please be sure to chime in via the comments.

11 Responses to “Facebook facial recognition: What the web is saying”

  1. Orwell

    Never be seen anywhere you’re not supposed to be. Facebook can spot you in the background of a stranger’s picture and will tell your spouse, boss, and all your Facebook friends that you were at that swinger’s party.

  2. Garnulf

    It’s time to remember that Facebook’s business plan relies on FB users’ information not being private. This is not a matter of forgiveness after the fact vs. permission before the fact, it’s a matter of: if user privacy were baked in (which it is not) FB has less of a business.

    • Speaking of business models, it is a little known fact that 25% of Facebook’s computational power goes into privacy rule checking and enforcement.

      The more complex the rules become the more firepower they need to devote in the datacenter, so it does become an economical consideration for them.

      Source: Ed Palmieri, FB Privacy Counsel @ PII2011 (

  3. i believe Facebook has not been so much of concern with the people because most of them are 24*7 or we can say spend most of the time online, so they do get to know the changes Facebook is coming up with…

  4. i believe facebook has not be so much of concern with the people because most of them are 24*7 or we can say spend most of the time online, so they do get to know the changes facebook is coming up with…

  5. Colleen, nice round-up!

    The issue isn’t the feature itself, but the sheer scale at which Facebook gets to exercise their facial recognition algorithms at. Due to the massive size of their data set, their algorithms are going to get very good, very fast. Facebook was probably exercising these algorithms “in the dark” without users even knowing it.

    So the concern isn’t the feature itself, but what FB will do with this power in the future – especially because they prefer forgiveness over permission as a matter of policy.

    And yes, options exist for those who wish to socialize and not leave a trail:

    Disclosure: I am a founder.

    • Colleen Taylor

      Thanks for the feedback, Zubin. You hit the nail on the head– many people are suspicious not about facial recognition technology itself, but the way in which Facebook deployed it.

      An interesting debate, to be sure!

  6. I really don’t understand the outrage over this feature. I think it is cool and makes the process of tagging really efficient. Something similar already exists in iPhoto and Picasa. My existing privacy settings, that only my closest friends can see which photos I am tagged in, remains unchanged and if a friends tagged me in a picture, it is because he will have approved the suggestion of the face recognition software, not because I was tagged automatically. So I really fail to see what all the fuss is all about.

  7. Darrin

    Scoble is missing the point… its not the photos you upload yourself that are the problem, its the photos of you that someone else uploads and tags – photos you don’t necessarily want made public. Auto-tagging is likely to make embarrassing photos which would previously not be tagged more prevalent.