Privacy groups push for U.S. Facebook probe

File complaint with FTC seeking to halt Facebook's plans for facial recognition service

The privacy flap over Facebook's new facial recognition service gained some momentum Monday.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and three other advocacy groups today filed a complaint asking the Federal Trade Commission to force Facebook to end plans for a new facial recognition service that would automatically identify the people in photos that users post on Facebook, even if a user doesn't tag a photo.

The facial recognition feature would be automatically turned on. Users who don't want the service must manually opt out of it.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) quickly threw his weight behind the initiative and called for the FTC to investigate the Facebook service.

"When it comes to users' privacy, Facebook's policy should be: 'Ask for permission, don't assume it,'" said Markey, co-chairman of the bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, in a statement today. "Rather than facial recognition, there should be a Facebook recognition that changing privacy settings without permission is wrong. I encourage the FTC to probe this issue and will continue to closely monitor this issue."

Facebook has not responded to a request for comment on the complaint or Markey's statement.

The letter of complaint was filed less than a week after Facebook announced plans to enable facial recognition across its social networking site -- a move that raised the ire of privacy advocates and some users.

The European Union's data protection regulators were the first to take on the issue, immediately announcing plans to launch an investigation. Authorities in the U.K. and Ireland have since disclosed that they are considering their own probes.

Facebook, which last week said that it's already trying to answer questions from EU regulators, now may face queries from U.S. officials.

The complaint filed this morning by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse asks that the FTC force Facebook to stop collecting users' biometric data without their opt-in consent.

The letter alleges that Facebook's facial recognition feature violates the site's own privacy policy, and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice.

"Facebook possesses the largest collection of photographs of individuals of any corporation in the world," the letter contends. "According to an extrapolation of photo upload data reported by Facebook, the company now possesses about 60 billion photographs. There is every reason to believe that unless the commission 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."

When Facebook announced the service last week, the company said it's using facial recognition technology to make it easier for users to tag photos of friends and family members.

The company has been quietly rolling out the new technology to test groups since late last year.

Once in service, Facebook's system could be able to recognize the faces of its 500 million to 700 million users worldwide.

In just a few weeks, the system will scan all photos posted to Facebook and will provide the names of the people who appear in each shot. All of Facebook's users will be automatically added to the database.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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