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The Latest Creepy Step From Facebook: Facial Recognition Technology

Is Facebook's new facial recognition tool designed to make the site more useful to users or to boost its value for executives?

Remember the uproar when Facebook made your list of friends, pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region and networks publicly available to everyone? Now, the social networking behemoth has silently enabled facial recognition software without your permission under the rather benign tag "Suggest photos of me to friends." Even if you choose to disable the option, Facebook still will have the technical ability to connect your name with your image.

Mark Zuckerberg might say his company is just evolving on privacy – witness his comments in this video interview that:

"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."

Contrast this with his former claims that privacy is "the vector around which Facebook operates".

Imagine if, in the name this vector, his company had labelled the new feature "facial recognition photo tags" and required users to opt in, rather than disable it after the fact. Methinks Zuckerberg would have had fewer takers.

But already, the deck is stacked against privacy. As media activist Cory Doctorow noted in a TED lecture, Facebook employs "very powerful game-like mechanisms to reward to disclosure – it embodies BF's Skinner's famous thought experiment, the notion of the Skinner box … lavish[ing] you with attention from the people that you love … in service to a business model that cashes in the precious material of our social lives." Is this new feature really designed to make the site more useful to users or to boost its commercial value as it nears an initial public stock offering?

As Joan Goodchild, senior editor of CSO (chief security officer) Online, noted to me:

"Many privacy advocates feel Facebook needs to do a better job of educating folks about what the new feature is, what it does, and how to opt in or out. Many also feel a user should always be opted out of new features automatically, and should then have to opt in themselves. But it is often the other way around when Facebook rolls out these features."

My concerns go deeper: once data is available to third parties, however temporarily, the cat is out of the bag and beyond retrieval. And it's not just this constant meddling with our settings that's releasing our information – there are also security holes, not to mention scams and release of our data by third-party apps, which the Wall Street Journal found "were sending Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of internet users by tracking their online activities". More recently, Facebook was adding apps to our profiles that we hadn't requested and which we were unable to permanently disable.

And these front doors – and also back doors – are available for governments, including our own, which has been surveilling such security "risks" as the Quakers and calling Virginia opponents of mountaintop removal "terrorists" (pdf) (while excluding the Ku Klux Klan). There are already huge government-controlled facial databases: your photo on your driver's licence, government-issued identity card, travel visa and passport ends up in a government office. If the government wants to see a photo of your face, it often wouldn't need Facebook to get it. But Facebook's facial recognition feature certainly adds data points and a social graph. As Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of BT wrote me:

"Right now, Facebook has the largest collection of identified photos outside of governments. I don't think we know what the ramifications of that will be."

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