Photo Finder: Automated Facial Recognition on Facebook

Amateur facial recognition technology is coming to Facebook.

Face.com is launching a facial recognition application called Photo Finder to allow Facebook users to search their photos — and photos of their friends — to learn, recognize, and tag familiar faces. There are numerous stories on this launch (each seemingly building from the same press material, each magically offering 100 invites to the private alpha of the app), and the details can’t be confirmed, but essentially the app will scan all your photos and those in your social graph and automatically tag you and your friends. You can then confirm, deny, or edit these tags, and even set up a watchlist to notify you when the app finds new photos of you (or a friend).

This kind of facial recognition system isn’t new, even in social networking contexts (see Polar Rose). But Face.com’s particular approach has some unique features. Photo Finder claims to fully respect existing Facebook privacy settings. It only scans photos that have been made viewable to you, and only allows your friends to scan the photos you allow them to see. Further, the tags generated by Photo Finder are only viewable in Photo Finder, and only be your friends who are also using Photo Finder. They do not become co-mingled with Facebook’s own tagging system.

While these features help mitigate some of the initial privacy fears of having the ability to automatically scan and recognize photos on Facebook, it doesn’t absolve all my concerns.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the deployment of robust face recognition tools for use by everyday people on social media platforms presents unique privacy concerns. Previously Facebook gave me some (but limited) power to control the searchability of my likeness within the millions of photos they host. If someone uploads a photo of me and decides to tag that image with my name, I can be easily searchable. However, I am notified of this, and  can remove that tag. While the photo remains, I gain some “privacy via obscurity” since few will know that photo exists and that I’m in it.

But with systems like Photo Finder, photos containing my likeness can be more easily discovered, and I receive no notification when someone has identified me using the system (unless I’m also automatically scanning new photos to find my face). Photo Finder works to reduce the information friction that might have prevented people from finding random photos of me on the social Web.

It is good that Face.com has designed Photo Finder with some privacy-protecting features, but we must not be lulled into thinking that no privacy threats exist.

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