Privacy Advocates File FTC Complaint Over Invasive New Facebook Feature

On December 15th, Facebook posted an article on its blog touting the benefits of its new “Group Tagging” service, which employs face recognition software (similar to that found in many photo editing tools) to match faces in photos to other photos, and will even suggest the name of friends in the photos. As stated by Facebook:

“Now if you upload pictures from your cousin’s wedding, we’ll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name. Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you’ll need to do is click “Save” to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once. By making tagging easier than before, you’re more likely to know right away when friends post photos. We notify you when you’re tagged, and you can untag yourself at any time.  As always, only friends can tag each other in photos.”

I’m no paranoid, but there’s only one word for a powerful software program that recognizes me in photos posted on the Internet: Creepy. However, it’s Zuckerberg’s company, and he can do what he wants with it.

What bothers privacy advocates is that Facebook is launching this feature as a default.  In other words, it’s going to employ this system to recognize faces, and it’s up to you to figure out how to disable the feature in your privacy settings.  This isn’t the first time Facebook has displayed its arrogance by automatically assuming this is exactly what its users what they want.

Others feel the same way.  On June 10, 2011, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (“EPIC”), joined by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), claiming that Facebook’s facial recognition feature will harm consumers and constitutes “unfair and deceptive acts and practices.” Congress isn’t staying silent on the issue either.  On June 13, 2011, Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) released a statement supporting the complaint and indicating that he will “continue to closely monitor this issue.”

The FTC complaint claims that Facebook gathered data concerning users’ photos, without their knowledge or consent, in order to develop its facial recognition technology, and characterizes Facebook’s instructions for users who attempt to delete facial recognition data as “false and misleading.”

The complaint further alleges that, even after disabling the Tag Suggestion technology, Facebook users still are unable to prevent the collection of their biometric data.  In addition, EPIC alleges that Facebook has not stopped application developers, the government or other third parties from accessing the “Photo Comparison Data” the company compiles.

EPIC’s complaint requests that the FTC require Facebook to:

  • Immediately suspend the identification of users based on Facebook’s database of facial images;
  • Cease misrepresenting how it “maintains and protects the security, privacy, confidentiality, and integrity of any consumer information”;
  • Provide additional disclosures to users prior to new or additional sharing of information with third parties; and
  • Establish, implement and maintain a comprehensive privacy program.

What will the FTC do?  In light of the Commission’s recent focus on online privacy issues, I’d say the scales tip on EPIC’s side.  What it really comes down to is that Facebook should have the courtesy to first ask users whether they want to take advantage of a new service feature, rather than shove it down their throats.


Author: Seth Heyman
Seth D. Heyman is a California attorney with extensive experience in advertising and marketing law, corporate law, contracts, governmental regulations, international business, and Internet law. He has counseled numerous successful companies, both public and private, and was responsible for regulatory compliance, contract management, corporate governance, and HR best practices for multiple organizations in many diverse industries, including marketing, telecommunications, energy, and technology development. He offers insight and guidance on federal and state direct mail, TV, radio, telemarketing, and Internet marketing laws, as well as online promotions, Internet privacy, data protection regulations, and similar matters.

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