Facebook facial recognition draws fire

A new Facebook feature that uses facial recognition software to suggest the names of friends in uploaded photos is drawing fire in both the U.S. and the European Union.

The service, which suggests the names of friends so users can tag them in pictures, has been available since December but will now be a default setting on existing accounts. 

The change has prompted an EU investigation, according to a report from BusinessWeek, along with concern from a prominent House Democrat.

“Requiring users to disable this feature after they've already been included by Facebook is no substitute for an opt-in process," said Rep. Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Joseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs MORE (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. 

"If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims, it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users' privacy settings without their permission.”

Facebook has argued the change makes it easier to tag multiple photos of the same person instead of manually typing in their name every time. Users can disable the feature through their Facebook privacy settings so they will no longer be suggested, but friends can still tag them in pictures manually.

“We announced Tag Suggestions in December 2010 to make tagging — one of the most popular activities on Facebook — easier and the news was covered widely. Since then, we've been gradually rolling out the feature and about 35 million people have used it to add hundreds of millions of tags," said Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes. 

"This data, and the fact that we've had almost no user complaints, suggest people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful. For those who don't, we made turning off Tag Suggestions easy and explained how to do so on our blog, in our Help Center, and within the interface."

The distinction between offering a new service to customers as optional and requiring them to opt-out of it has been an issue for other firms navigating the uncharted waters of the social Internet.

Lawmakers have paid particular attention to instances where consumers' personal data is shared without their consent. There is no indication the new Facebook feature falls into that category.

Google got into hot water last year over the rollout of its Buzz social network, which required Gmail users to opt out and in some cases still enrolled them in aspects of the service.

Google ultimately settled a Federal Trade Commission complaint by requiring a new comprehensive privacy policy and third-party audits of the search giant.