IN RECENT DAYS, more and more Facebook users started seeing a notification about how the social network uses its facial recognition technology. When Facebook first implemented the tech in 2013, it limited its use to suggesting tags in photos. In December, though, the company announced that it would expand face recognition’s scope to notify you when someone added a photo you were in, whether it was tagged or not. If that sounds like something you’d rather Facebook not do, it’s easy enough to stop.
If you haven’t yet encountered the new notification, it provides some detail about the change. “You control face recognition,” the message reads, popping up in your News Feed and explaining that the platform now has three main goals for the tech: surfacing photos of you that you haven’t been tagged in, flagging situations where someone you don’t seem to know uses a photo of you in their profile (perhaps to impersonate or troll you), and improving the photo-browsing experience for people with visual impairments. It then gives you a tailored explanation of whether your account is currently set to have the feature on or off.
“Using facial recognition to help the visually impaired or as a tool to identify and combat cyber harassment is notable, because the positive uses of facial recognition technology are pretty limited to fun and maybe authentication,” says Woodrow Hartzog, a law and computer science professor at Northeastern University who studies privacy and data protection. “It’s interesting now to see different uses. We collectively need to watch that to see how it plays out.”
Many Facebook users will end up subjecting their photos to bulk face-recognition scanning for little personal benefit—simply making tagging slightly easier. And least the company seems to strike a decent balance between utility and privacy.
“They won’t identify you using face recognition to people who couldn’t identity you in real life, and that to me seems like the right line,” says Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “I personally am comfortable with face tagging in this very circumscribed context, but only in that context where it’s to someone who would already recognize you. If we cross that line, face recognition could rapidly spin out of control and that could be really problematic.”
If you’re not comfortable with Facebook’s new face recognition tools, you can head to Settings > Face Recognition, then select yes or no at the question Do you want Facebook to be able to recognize you in photos and videos? And while Facebook says that it isn’t opting everyone in, you may be surprised to find the feature already on.
“The new setting is not on by default,” says Facebook spokesperson Rochelle Nadhiri. True, but not so simple. “The new setting respects people’s existing choices, so if you’ve already turned off tag suggestions then your new face recognition setting will be off by default. If your tag suggestions setting was set to ‘friends’ then your face recognition setting will be set to on,” Nadhiri explains.
But the “tag suggestions” preference dates back more than four years. Even if you fully understood enough about face-recognition technology at the time to make a carefully considered choice in 2013, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be fine letting even more of it into your life now. When the social network attempted to add a similar tag suggestion tool in 2010 it faced extensive pushback, because all users were automatically opted in.
‘Facebook users need to realize that they are being actively nudged toward the use of biometrics.’
WOODROW HARTZOG, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
Even in this renewed push to incorporate face recognition, people in Canada and the European Union won’t have access to the features at all, because those regions have regulations about how companies can collect and store biometric data. And at the same time, Facebook has encountered legal challenges to its face recognition use in the US. For example, a San Francisco federal judge said on Monday that a class action lawsuit over Facebook’s collection and retention of biometric data can proceed.
Observers also note that limited face recognition applications for users doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook as a company isn’t deriving a larger benefit from all the biometric face data it gathers. As a public company, if Facebook can find opportunities to monetize the data or harness it to fuel user growth, it will take them.
“Facebook users need to realize that they are being actively nudged toward the use of biometrics,” Northeastern’s Hartzog says. “That makes exercising choice even more important, because the inertia of modern social media is to get you to disclose more and more and build an environment that keeps facilitating that.”
And given the way Facebook handled this latest expansion of face recognition use, it’s safe to assume that if you opt in today, you’re also opting in to whatever comes next.
Here’s even more detail about Facebook’s expanded use of facial recognition from when it launched in December
One Facebook offering you should definitely opt out of is its Onavo Protect VPN, which seems to exist mostly to collect your data
The inside story of Facebook’s rough two years, beset by Russian trolls and accusations of political bias