Facial recognition and foreclosure via Facebook?

In talking about Facebook automatically enabling facial recognition tagging without warning users, Graham Cluley from security firm Sophos said, "Unfortunately, once again, Facebook seems to be sharing personal information by default." Facebook, with its billions of user-uploaded photos, is "creepily" encouraging your friends to tag you in photographs. Cluley explains how to disable "Suggest photos of me to friends." According to CNET, another Sophos security advisor, Chester Wisniewski said of Facebook, "You're not a customer, you're a product. With this facial-recognition feature, photos will be automatically indexed, which will help information spread more quickly."

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Privacy by default seems to be a concept beyond Facebook's grasp. According to BBC, Facebook is "sorry." How many times has Facebook played this same hand, making changes and then apologizing afterwards for rolling out features that automatically opt-in users? Seems like if Facebook was sincere about any of those apologies, then opt-out would be the default choice and users could make changes if they wished to opt-in. In fact, since Facebook's "Tagging Suggestions" do not ask a user's permission to suggest people's names to tag, the European Union (EU) privacy watchdogs intend to investigate the "world's most popular social networking service." Although not related to photo tagging, even using the word "Facebook" was banned from French TV.

Many online sites like Google use facial recognition technology, but if Facebook doesn't creep you out yet . . . would that change if you could be served legal papers over Facebook? Hiding behind your Facebook identity doesn't help from being served with legal paper in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. And according to Bloomberg Businessweek, serving people with legal documents over Facebook may soon be considered acceptable in the United States.

There's been plenty of legal papers served over Facebook in other countries. In June, a paternity order was served via Facebook. Since the Facebook user was considered "a prolific social network user," posting the document on Facebook was considered successful delivery, the same as taking out a newspaper ad.  An Australian man was served a restraining order via Facebook. Another Australian man was sent foreclosure paperwork over Facebook. Even collection agencies snoop around on Facebook. Switched reported on a woman who fell $362 behind on her car payments and then filed a lawsuit against collection agency MarkOne that "publicly harassed and embarrassed her on Facebook." 

Being able to serve documents via social networks is considered a "useful tool" by Joseph DeMarco, co-chair of the American Bar Association's criminal justice cyber-crime committee and a lawyer at New York-based DeVore & DeMarco. DeMarco told Bloomberg, "There are people who exist only online." A court would need to be convinced the account holder was the right person, but if a page was frequently checked then that would qualify as "a fair path of notification. This would need to be done without violating ethics codes that would prevent lawyers from 'friending' the target under false pretenses to get past security settings."

Mark Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said "There are going to be privacy concerns, but in some respects they're almost inescapable." He added that people may not be happy about being "subject to legal service" whether it's done over Facebook or not.

Using a private Facebook message to serve legal documents would no doubt cause privacy complaints, but there are often privacy complaints by people who are served via the mail or in person. Facebook served 176 billion ad impressions in the first quarter of 2011, but I wonder how many legal papers will be served via Facebook in the upcoming months?

Will Facebook facial recognition and "tagging" you make it easier for collection agencies or attorneys to hunt you down if you mostly live online? The EFF has previously warned to be cautious because Big Brother wants to be your social network friend. Now you need to be careful of unethical people looking to "friend" you to potentially serve legal documents. 

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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