Privacy Groups Urge Investigation of Facebook Facial Recognition Tool

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Facebook already knows about your friend, random thoughts and likes. Now it wants to collect biometric data?

That’s the subject of a complaint by privacy advocates filed Monday to the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to stop Facebook’s facial recognition service. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also urged the FTC to investigate the service for privacy and consumer violations.

In its complaint, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said Facebook — with an estimated 60 billion photos of individuals in its collection — secretly collected facial images for automated online identification.

Through its facial recognition software, Facebook recommended tags to help identify people in photos. It began rolling out the service last December, and the company said it should have done a better job of alerting consumers that it was being implemented more widely.

That, according to EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg, violates consumer protection laws. The feature was implemented without user consent. And even though users can opt out of the service, Facebook subscribers weren’t notified of the risks associated with the service, he said.

“There is every reason to believe that unless the [FTC] acts promptly, Facebook will routinely automate facial identification and eliminate any pretense of user control over the use of their own images for online identification,” Rotenberg wrote in the complaint. EPIC was joined by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Facebook said it allows users to opt out of the photo recognition service.

“Since last December, we’ve been gradually rolling out the feature, and millions of people have used it to add hundreds of millions of tags. This data, and the fact that we’ve had almost no user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful,” said Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook. “For those who don’t, we made turning off Tag Suggestions easy and explained how to do so on our blog, in our Help Center, and within the interface.”

But Markey said extra protections should be in place for consumers.

“When it comes to users’ privacy, Facebook’s policy should be: ‘Ask for permission, don’t assume it.’ Rather than facial recognition, there should be a Facebook recognition that changing privacy settings without permission is wrong,” he said in a statement. “I encourage the FTC to probe this issue and will continue to closely monitor this issue.”

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