Facebook may recognize faces instead of privacy

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Facebook appears to be pushing the envelope again in terms of controversial innovation. According to the New York Times, it recently took the liberty of changing its users' privacy settings in order to allow for its latest feature, facial recognition software.

Facial recognition is a feature that identifies a user's face in a photo. Once Facebook detects that user's face, the user can then be tagged in that photo, either by him- or herself, or by friends. One can, however, opt out of the service, but this won't keep Facebook from identifying the user's face and making it searchable in a large database, said PC World.

Facebook currently has around 600 million members, and hosts something in the ballpark of 90 billion user photos. Each time someone tags a photo on Facebook, the facial recognition technology learns more about what the person involved looks like; this creates a new trend that can be eyed as either advantageous or cause for concern: searching for people by their photos alone.

PC World suggested the unsettling possibility that, in the wrong situation, someone can simply take a photo of a person on the street, and through facial recognition, discover everything about that person online, and, with what users share these days, that could mean an email, number, even a home address.

Google, on the other hand, won't dabble in this technology, at least not right now. Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, remarked that the "surprising accuracy" of facial recognition is "very concerning," according to The Telegraph. Though Google's own practices in regard to privacy are questionable, Scmidt seemed adamant in his opposition toward the feature, but added that "some company, by the way, is going to cross that line."

Well, Facebook appears to have been that company.

Facial recognition isn't the first new addition to Facebook in recent months. In March, Inside Facebook detailed the site's recently added "check-in" feature. This feature allows you to update your profile when you arrive at a place or event, by 'checking in' on your iPhone or smartphone. What this means is that the phone finds your exact location, and then allows it to be posted to Facebook as a status update.

According to Morello Digital, Josh Martin, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, said of the feature, "There are definitely going to be privacy concerns. There are hundreds of millions of people that don't want to share their location, whether it's because of privacy concerns or because they are of a different generation and don't care."

On the other hand, some of these privacy-risk features have benefits, too. Facial recognition makes it easier to find that new friend you met at a concert, even if you don't have his or her number. Check-in makes it easier to let friends know if you're throwing a party - or, it can even help gather people if you're doing something constructive, like taking part in a political protest or rally.

Nevertheless, Facebook has come under fire in recent years, said the Times, for introducing these new product features without the knowledge or consent of its users. How, for example, would an older person who is not quite computer savvy know about this facial recognition feature? How would that person know how to opt out of it, when Facebook makes no particular announcement about it to its users beforehand?

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

Graham Cluley, of the security firm Sophos, suggested that users should be made aware that they have a choice in whether or not they participate in changes that affect privacy. "The onus should not be on Facebook users having to 'opt-out' of the facial recognition feature, but instead on users having to 'opt-in,'" he said. "It feels like Facebook is eroding the online privacy of its users by stealth."

Photo: Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt does not agree with Facebook' s recent decision to incorporate facial recognition technology into the photo of its users without warning those users beforehand. AP/Paul Sakuma

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