Future Tense

Facebook Will Tell You How to Turn Off Facial Recognition. Why Wait?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10:  Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Do you trust Facebook with your face? Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Free social media services are built from convenient features that become ominous only once you start to think about them, with one of the eeriest examples being Facebook’s ability to identify your face in a photo anyone uploads. By recognizing faces and suggesting users tag their friends and themselves in uploaded photos, the company has built what could be the largest name-to-face database in the world. Those tagging suggestions weren’t something that you opted into; they just showed up when someone uploaded a photo that might have your face on it. Facebook later gave some users the option to turn facial recognition off, but you had to go to your privacy settings to do so, and it kept the option to suggest that you’ve been tagged in a photo separate.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced an important change to its stance on face ID. Now, all facial recognition, including tagging, will be turned off by default for new users, who can choose to opt in. If you already had facial recognition turned on, you won’t receive a notice to turn it off.

And if you didn’t have it turned on but still allowed for Facebook to suggest people tag you in photos they upload, you’ll receive a notice that will give you the option to turn off facial recognition, in all of its applications. Facebook explained the changes on Tuesday in a blog post:

People who still have the tag suggestions setting will begin to see a notice in their News Feed today. The notice will include information about the new features and options to learn more about how we use face recognition, along with a button to turn it on or keep it off. If you do not currently have the face recognition setting and do nothing, we will not use face recognition to recognize you or suggest tags… If you already have the face recognition setting, you won’t receive a notice.”

If you’re confused, you’re definitely not alone. When I saw this news, I also wasn’t sure I understood what I had turned on or off, or how Facebook differentiated between tagging suggestions and facial recognition, and whether I’d get a new notice to turn mine off if I didn’t want it. I was pretty sure that I already had turned facial recognition off.

The gist is that Facebook is consolidating tagging suggestions and face recognition into a single on-off switch. If you had one on and not the other, you’ll get probably get a notification soon letting you know it’s off and you can turn it on. Still, if you did have facial recognition turned on before, it’s possible you didn’t even know it was on, or forgot what option you chose. People in that group won’t get a notification, but they can still go in to their settings and turn off facial recognition. No matter what option you choose, your friends will still be able to tag you in photos, which you can approve or disapprove if you want to be tagged.

To turn off all facial recognition on Facebook, follow these steps:

1)   Log into Facebook and click on the small upside-down arrow in the top right of the site if you’re on a desktop. On mobile, find the settings menu at the bottom of the app.

2)    Click “Settings,” then on the left-hand corner, click on “Face Recognition.”

3)    There, choose to edit your preferences and pick No.

There are a lot of reasons why someone might not want a company like Facebook to use their biometric data to identify them in photos. It was recently hit with a historic $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission, in part because it misrepresented how its facial recognition technology was being deployed, which was turned on by default with tag suggestions. The company now has new oversight requirements from the FTC to guarantee that it keep its privacy promises for the next 20 years. And there are currently no national data privacy laws that govern how tech companies are supposed to safeguard facial recognition data, which has been increasingly used by law enforcement to match photographs to databases—a practice that’s proven rife with mismatches, particularly for people with darker skin. Right now, Facebook says it only uses its facial ID system for its own services, and that it does not sell access to its database or it A.I. tools. Still, lots of users may decide they’re just not comfortable allowing the company’s software to scan for their mugs, no matter how nifty they find a feature like tag suggestions. Considering the newness of this technology—and its worrisome applications elsewhere—making it opt-in for new users reads as a welcome, if belated, sign of respect for the customer.

As for current users: Whatever your current privacy setting is, and whether or not you get a notice from Facebook about how it’s scanning your photos, if any of this gives you pause, just opt out.