Yes, Facebook is changing how face recognition works on its service. And no, it still isn’t doing enough to respect users’ privacy.
Starting today, the company will no longer scan new users’ faces by default to do things like identify them in photos. Instead, it will ask for permission first. Facebook also says that existing users who didn’t already get the face recognition setting (which started rolling out in 2017) will be alerted about it and have the chance to turn it on. Facebook notes: “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.” In short, it’s not on by default for these users. Good!
But despite Facebook’s efforts to communicate its updated policy clearly, some users may still be left in the dark. For those users, Facebook’s face recognition feature may be enabled without them realizing it. And that’s not good, because Facebook’s face recognition practices have bothered some privacy-conscious users. For example, Facebook has been fighting accusations that it violated biometric privacy laws in the state of Illinois by allegedly misusing users’ face data.
Facebook’s interest in scanning faces—with and without asking for permission first—goes way back. The technology originally appeared at the end of 2010 as Tag Suggestions. The tag suggestions feature was turned on by default for users in most countries, and if you never turned it off manually, then its broader replacement—the face recognition option—may be (or has already been) enabled for you as well.
So why isn’t Facebook just asking every user explicitly, now, if they want the feature on or off? A spokesperson told Fast Company, “In the US and [other countries] where Tag Suggestions was available, we respected people’s Tag Suggestions settings choice.”
But are users really exercising their ability to choose when a setting is on by default for some of them in a sea of historically confusing settings? Facebook tells us that it encourages users to “make sure their settings [choices] are right for them.” It also noted that “face recognition can be turned on or off at any time as was the case for Tag Suggestions.”
If you’re not sure what your face recognition settings are, the good news is the setting should be clearer than ever for everyone. You can simply switch it on or off via the Face Recognition tab in Facebook’s settings.