Facebook knows your face. Big deal!

December 16, 2010, 8:07 PM UTC

Some users are worried the new Tag Suggestions feature further erodes at their privacy. Here’s why it won’t.

Facebook's new Tag Suggestions feature. Photo: Facebook

Facebook took the next step in revamping its photo services this week with the launch of Tag Suggestions, a facial recognition feature that scans faces in your photos and offers up suggestions of who they are from your list of friends. Currently being tested with a small, undisclosed group of users, Tag Suggestions will roll out to the rest of the social network’s 550 million-plus users over the next few weeks.

“When you or a friend upload new photos, we use face recognition software — similar to that found in many photo editing tools — to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in,” Facebook explained in a recent blog post. “We group similar photos together and, whenever possible, suggest the name of the friend in the photos.”

Facebook uses photos from a cousin’s wedding as an example. Once they’ve been uploaded, the social network will group shots of the bride and suggest her name. Instead of typing her name individually numerous times, all you’ll need to do is click ‘Save’ to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once.

Given the fact the fact that users upload 100 million photos and make 100 million “tags” a day, it’s inevitable that the news wouldn’t go over well with a part of the Facebook contingent. Some users worry that it’s another attempt by Facebook to strip away privacy. It could also provide more ammunition for the extremist argument that Facebook is the real-world equivalent of Skynet, the self-aware, artificially intelligent network and main antagonist in the Terminator movies that revolts against its creators. (Yes, seriously.) The more automated features Facebook employs, the “smarter” it becomes, and ultimately, the more control we as users lose.

“Facebook’s latest feature is just too dangerous in my opinion,” wrote one reader on PCMag.com. “It poses a lot of privacy issues, and I think it should be scraped. … We must wake up to the dangers Facebook poses before it’s too late.”

Hyperbole? Sure. But some of that concern is understandable. As a steady Facebook user, I enjoy photos of myself surfacing on the social network, and I certainly don’t mind getting tagged or tagging myself in them often times. (Yes, that’s somewhat “narcissistic.”) The Tag Suggestions feature sounds an alarm because, while it’s one thing to have a human being tag you — willingly or unwillingly — having a set of algorithms dredge up your name and offer it for tagging purposes sounds, at least on first impression, somewhat fishy.

Granted, you may not have initially signed up for Facebook with the intention of having algorithms scan your mug, but given the nature of Facebook and its mission of sharing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, particularly given other products like say, iPhoto ‘09 or Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery already use similar facial recognition technologies. And besides, how is Tag Suggestions more intrusive than the rest of the information — interests, likes, statuses, political affiliations, sexual preferences — that is all catalogued and searchable from within the network?

To address user concerns, the social network will also introduce a privacy setting that allows you to opt out of Tag Suggestions, so your name won’t appear even if a photo of you gets uploaded. Also, you’re only taggable by other Facebook friends. So if you happen to wander into a photo taken by a non-Facebook friend and that person puts the photo through Tag Suggestions, your name won’t show up regardless of your privacy settings. Random strangers will not be able to figure out your identity.

So if Facebook is on its way to becoming something akin to Big Brother — and I’d say, no, at least not yet — it’s not because of a minor feature like Tag Suggestions.