Facebook will learn your face unless you tell it to stop

A woman looks at the Facebook page on victims of the U.S. tornadoes at an office in Washington D.C., on April 29, 2011.

Facebook has a feature called Tag Suggestions. When you upload a picture to Facebook, the software on the site will scan the faces in the picture and look for possible matches among your Facebook friends. When it spots one, it may suggest to you that you tag that person in the photo. That tag will then get announced to that person and lots of friends as well.

You still have to say yes and choose to apply the tag but it's the technology that has some people uneasy. Facebook is learning faces, associating them with names and spotting those people in a crowd. Graham Cluley from the security firm Sophos asks, "If they begin to collect that information on what 700 million different people look like, what are they going to do with that data in the future?"

He also points out that unless you turn off the feature, you are a candidate to be recognized. Here's how he says to do that:

* Go to your Facebook account's privacy settings.
* Click on "Customize settings."
* Under "Things others share" you should see an option titled "Suggest photos of me to friends. When photos look like me, suggest my name."
* Unfortunately at this point you can't tell whether Facebook has enabled the setting or not, you have to dig deeper..
* Click on "Edit settings".
* If Facebook has enabled auto-suggestion of photo tags you will find the option says "Enabled."
* Change it to "Disabled" if you don't want Facebook to work that way.
* Press "OK."

We also talk to Peter Belhumeur, professor of computer science at Columbia University. He says the arrival of facial recognition software on Facebook is very significant, given the size and reach of Facebook. He also worries about it being on Facebook. First, because the software isn't perfect. Second, "You can imagine how much information people can collect about who they are and who they're with. I mean, a lot of photos have time stamp, some have geographic information, you know where the photo was taken. So there's a lot of information. Who's going to keep the information and how will they share with others? We just don't know."

We contacted Facebook about this issue. They declined to speak on the air but a spokesperson gave us a written statement:

We launched Tag Suggestions to help people add tags of their friends in photos; something that's currently done more than 100 million times a day. Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested. If for any reason someone doesn't want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their Privacy Settings.

When we announced this feature last December, we explained that we would test it, listen to feedback and iterate before rolling it out more broadly. We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them. Tag Suggestions are now available in most countries and we'll post further updates to our blog over time.

Also in this program, Leafsnap is an app that lets you take a picture of a leaf and then learn what kind of tree it's from.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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