What’s With the Facebook Notifications About New Facial Recognition Features?

Notifications that two Facebook users have received recently about facial recognition features. One says that the setting is off, while the other says the setting is on.
Notifications that Facebook users have received recently about facial recognition features
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock. Screengrabs from Facebook.

As Facebook confronts a lawsuit over how it collects and uses biometric data, the social network is notifying more users about new facial recognition features that may infringe upon their privacy.

Many people who logged onto Facebook this week were greeted with a News Feed alert detailing the new tools available through facial recognition software. Some people are receiving a notification saying that the “setting is on,” while for others, it says “the setting is off.” It’s possible that the difference has to do with existing settings the user had selected. (Update, March 2, 4:50 p.m.: A Facebook spokesperson explained the reason for the different notifications. “This new setting respects people’s existing choices, so if you’ve already turned off tag suggestions, then your new face recognition setting will be off by default. If your tag suggestions setting was set to ‘friends,’ then your face recognition setting will be set to on.”)

Facebook has used the technology for years to suggest the names of friends when you’re tagging photos. But in December, the company announced it would expand the software to include new features to help users find photos they haven’t been tagged in, tell people with visual impairments who’s in their photos, and help protect against strangers who use other people’s pictures (think Catfish).

While the company claims the tools will improve the Facebook experience and help users manage their identity, others view the new rollout as something a little more sinister. “Facebook can say this is about photo tagging. It’s not about photo tagging,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University.

The notifications come just days after a federal judge in California denied Facebook’s request to dismiss a class-action lawsuit that claims the platform collected and stored users’ biometric information without consent. Facebook must now proceed with the case, which was filed in federal court by Illinois residents who said Facebook violated the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act.

The Illinois law, passed in 2008, gives residents grounds to accuse Facebook of real harm. But Facebook has argued that facial recognition technology does not cause serious injury like physical harm or theft of property. And the social network has repeatedly touted the benefits of the software, saying it can be used to securely unlock phones and help find kidnapped children.

Still, Bedoya and other privacy watchdogs worry that as personal information becomes more valuable, powerful tech companies like Facebook could sell users’ personal information to retailers, allowing them to identify customers the minute they step foot in the store. The fact that the technology is becoming even more powerful should be cause for concern. It used to be that “Facebook would scan photos posted by close friends to see if they included you,” Bedoya said. “Now they’re scanning every single photo posted to Facebook to find you. What that shows is that the system has become even more sophisticated.”

Such concerns have led states like Texas and Washington (and, of course, Illinois) to pass privacy laws around biometrics. The European Union and Canada have also adopted strict privacy restrictions that have prevented Facebook from rolling out facial recognition technology to users in those countries. In 2012, EU regulators forced Facebook to discontinue its facial recognition tools on the continent after pressure from the Irish Data Protection Commission. However, the Irish Times reports that the social network will reintroduce the technology on an opt-in basis in the coming months.

And there’s still a lot we don’t know about how this all will work. “According to Facebook, face templates ‘are deleted’ when face recognition is turned off, but it’s unclear if Facebook still has your face print and still knows what untagged photos you appear in if you never agree to use these new features” in the first place, Sidney Fussell writes in Gizmodo.

“Facebook can do whatever it wants with this data. It’s sensitive information about our bodies that can be used to find us in real time, in real life,” Bedoya said. “Facebook is losing users at a high pace. A Facebook that is failing is far more of a threat to privacy than a Facebook that is thriving.”