Facebook Facial Recognition Tool Poses New Security Threats

Although Facebook originally discussed the use of facial recognition technology in a small blog post on the site back in December, it was listed as unavailable until earlier this month.  The social media giant released its new Autotag facial-recognition tool that will allow users to autotag photos of their friends based on what they look like. But what was most odd about this release is that they did so quietly and under the radar with little thought to the risks that could be associated with the tool.  Rather than having the ability to opt-in to this new tool, you have to go into your settings and opt-out.  With more than 500 million active users, even if you choose not to be tagged in photos, it is inevitable that you and perhaps even your small children are being tagged by others without your knowledge.

So how does it work?  While users of Facebook have been uplaoding more than 20 billion photographs to the site, Facebook has been been making biometric fingerprints of all of the faces within those photographs in what is probably the largest collection of facial data in the world. As demonstrated in the photo below, when you upload new photos to your Facebook profile, the facial recognition software will then scan them using these biometrics fingerprints to match the people in the photos with other photos they have previously been tagged.



Facebook is once again facing a new wave of privacy concerns as well as complaints from groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Even though Facebook states that this tool only works for your friends and not the overall Facebook community, EPIC filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commision.  Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of EPIC had this to say:

There is so much that goes on in Facebook that feels very open and transparent.  We can see what we post on our walls we can see the images which we are tagged in.  But it turns out that behind the curtain Facebook is building a giant data base.  We think Facebook’s interest in almost all of these privacy disputes has been to encourage people, cajole people, maybe even trick people into disclosing more personal information than they might otherwise may choose to disclose.

Face.com, the largest facial recognition company online, provides the facial recognition software for Facebook.  In conjunction with Face.com, Nick Schifrin of ABC Nightly News decided to test the software by uploading pictures of things that were clearly not him, such as Miss Potato Head, Chewbacca and Mark Zuckerberg all tagged as himself.  He even uploaded a photo of himself in a disguise to see if they could fool the computer.  Remarkably, the software was still able  to recognize his face even in disguise.


I decided to have a little fun and try this out myself, uploading photos of lions and tigers and bears and Betty Boop? Oh My! All tagged as me.

I then uploaded a picture of myself wearing sunglasses and sure enough…

Facebook has been known to change privacy settings without ever telling us of the changes. Even the European Union data-protection regulators drawn from Europe’s 27 nations have launched an investigation into Facebook’s use of this tool to suggest people’s names to tag in pictures without their permission.  They are studying the facial recognition tool for possible violations.  Authorities in the UK and Ireland are also looking into it.

It seems anymore as if everything that Facebook does is controversial and can cause some privacy  breach or risk. Social Ads, launched in November of 2007 put your name and face in the spotlight, third-party apps, introduced in May of 2007, were allowed to access your home address and phone number along with the information of all of your friends, Instant Personalization, introduced in April of 2010, shared your information with partner sites and now Facial Recognition Software can be added to the list.


If you decide this is something you want to opt-out of.  You can do so, although it is not easy. Unless you are shown where to go and how to do it, it is rather difficult to find on your own.  To opt out of this setting:

1) Under the “Account” drop-down menu at the top right, click “Privacy Settings.”
2) Under the “Sharing on Facebook” section, click on “Customize Settings.
3) Scroll down to “Suggest Photos of Me to Friends” under the “Things Others Share” section.
4) Click “Edit Settings.”
5) In the drop-down on the right, click “Disable.”

I would highly suggest that you double-check your other privacy settings as well. The best way to secure the highest level of privacy is to go through the “Things I Share” and “Things Others Share” sections, going item by item and choosing “friends only.”  And if you have a child on Facebook, you should certainly do the same for him or her.

Critics of Facebook feel that if Facebook’s motives are pure, then why make it so difficult to figure out how to opt-out?  I have to agree.  Better yet, why require people to opt out rather than allowing it’s users to opt-in to options they WANT to partake in such as Autotag? I for one do not want my child’s photo being tagged by others, especially knowing that so many kids “friend” anyone who sends them a request, except of course their parents!


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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Renee C. Quinn]
    Renee C. Quinn
    June 28, 2011 01:13 pm


    You are most welcome. I don’t like the fact that Facebook did so “under the radar.” I can’t help but wonder if they have ulterior motives. If they think the features they are adding are good, why not shout it out to the world. “Hey look at us, look at what we have. If you like it, you can opt in by going here…”

    And if they insist on requiring people to opt out rather than in, they should say “If you like it do nothing, if you don’t like it, you can opt out and here’s how.”

    Thanks for reading IPWatchdog and thank you for taking the time to comment.


  • [Avatar for MBT]
    June 28, 2011 10:41 am

    I wasa shocked when I went to upload pictures in May and saw this ‘feature.’ While it certainly made tagging pictures easier, i was rather concerned about alterior uses of the tool. I really don’t like it. Thanks for posting this Renee!