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Online privacy

June 9, 2011

Facebook's automatic facial recognition feature has come under criticism from German privacy advocates. Data protection officials are especially concerned that the feature is activated without users' consent.

woman at computer with facebook site open
Facebook says its facial recognition feature is useful for usersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The world's biggest online network, Facebook, is again sparking concerns about privacy in Germany as its automatic facial recognition feature was enabled in more countries this week.

The feature, called "Tag Suggestions," uses facial recognition technology to match newly updated photos to the social networking site to photos that have been tagged, or identified, elsewhere, suggesting to the user the names of people in the photos for easier tagging.

The feature was launched in the United States in December, but came under new scrutiny this week after a wider roll-out, especially since the feature was automatically activated on users' accounts without giving them any notice.

woman's face with facebook reflected in glasses
Tagging photos on Facebook is done more than 100 million times a day, the company saysImage: dpa

"Yet again, it feels like Facebook is eroding the online privacy of its users by stealth," Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at the Internet security firm Sophos, wrote in a blog post this week.

Facebook has defended the feature, saying users can disable it, although they must go to their account settings page and then navigate through several sub-menus to turn it off.

"If for any reason someone doesn't want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their Privacy Settings," a Facebook spokesman told news agency AFP.

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

German protest

Germany privacy advocates have been critical about the new feature as well as Facebook's handling of its introduction. The issue of the sharing of online information is especially sensitive here in part due to the country's experiences with both the Nazi and East German secret police.

"Again Facebook has changed its Privacy Declaration without the users' consent," Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner, wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.

Facebook like button
Frequent photo-taggers might like the new feature, but privacy advocates don't

"I do not think that Facebook's action conforms to European and German data protection law."

For Jimmy Schultz, a parliamentarian with the Free Democratic Party and a member of the Bundestag's new media committee, the new service is a far-reaching intrusion into personal freedom.

"This feature is a first step in the end of anonymity in the public sphere," he told the Financial Times Deutschland.

However, German privacy officials have little say in the actions of the giant US company, which has more than 600 million users around the globe.

EU probe

The European Union has announced it will conduct an investigation into Facebook and the new feature.

Privacy watchdogs drawn from the EU's 27 nations will look into the facial recognition function for possible rule violations, said Gerard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the so-called Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, a group which works with the European Commission on data protection issues and makes recommendations on privacy matters.

Authorities in the UK and Ireland said they are also looking into the photo-tagging function on the popular social network.

The Article 29 group has criticized Facebook in the past for changes to its privacy rules.

NO FLASH Facebook Symbolbild
Image: picture alliance / dpa

Privacy old-fashioned?

While Facebook says the feature just makes it easier for people who upload many pictures to tag their friends, others worry that commercial interests could become involved.

Critics say the data provided by the facial recognition feature could allow companies to target advertising even more precisely than they do now.

Others have worried that a snapshot taken on the street could be uploaded onto Facebook and personal information about that person then revealed. Right now, the facial recognition and tagging is limited to a user's Facebook friends.

The California-based company has long been suspected of having a free-and-easy attitude towards users' privacy. Founder Mark Zuckerberg is of the general opinion that members want to become even more public and share increasing amounts information about themselves.

Mark Zuckerberg
Founder Zuckerberg has a different approach to privacyImage: AP

Last year at an awards ceremony in San Francisico, Zuckerberg said that privacy was no longer a "social norm."

The company has repeatedly been subjected to firestorms of criticism over changes to its privacy policies over the years, such as the 2009 decision to retain messages even after members had left the network (which it backtracked on) or its 2008 "Beacon" service, which marketed user information to third parties (it was later cancelled).

Still, despite the frequent protests, Facebook will soon reach the 700 million subscriber mark and large-scale protest actions that have been organized have generally flopped.


Justin Mitchell, a Facebook engineer writing on the company's blog, said that the site had instituted the new feature because many users had complained that tagging, one of the most popular features on the network, was often a chore, especially if they had to tag multiple photos of the same people repeatedly.

While the facial recognition feature is automatically activated for members, users can opt out of the service and their name will no longer be suggested in photo tags. Friends, however, can still tag them manually.

To disable facial recognition, users can follow the following steps:

--Go to your "Account" then to "Privacy"
--Click "customize settings" at the bottom of the page
--Scroll down to a list of options called "Things others share"
--Next to "Suggest photos of me to friends," change the box to "Disabled"
--Click "Okay"

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Stuart Tiffen