It's been over three years since Facebook poked America in the eye with a new photo tagging feature that took advantage of some very scary technology: facial recognition. Put simply, Facebook added a new feature that could match faces to profiles, group together photos with similar faces in them and suggest the name of a friend when tagging photos. It was any conspiracy theorist's worst nightmare. Just imagine the privacy-crushing horror of software that combs through a giant database of photos, identifying who's in them and creating a web of face-spotting connections. American users freaked out. Congressmen like Al Franken and Ed Markey did too. The European Union straight up banned Facebook from implementing the facial recognition software for its users. And eventually Facebook yanked the feature off the site "to make some technical improvements," storing it away until the world was really ready for it.
That time, apparently, is now. At the end of last week, Facebook quietly rolled its Tag Suggestions tool back out to American users. Just like the first time around, the social network talked up the new tool's ability "to help [users] easily identify a friend in a photo and share that content with them." Given the backlash from a couple years ago, you'd think that Facebook would make a few adjustments to the software like, say, not turning facial recognition on for everyone by default. (Opting out is a three step process, one that I'll explain in a second.) But that's not the case. The tool is virtually exactly the same as it was before, and Facebook doesn't seem at all interested in changing it. "If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims," Rep. Ed Markey pointed out the last time around, "it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users' privacy settings without their permission."
For a moment, it seemed Facebook's managers had taken the concerns to heart. Less than a month after the company paid around $60 million to snap up Face.com, the Tel Aviv startup that pioneered the technology (based on experience with sophisticated military software), Facebook inexplicably shut down its face recognition API. When Facebook announced it would be deleting the last of its face recognition data a few months ago--following a particularly harsh investigation by the Data Protection Commission in Ireland--the New Statesman optimistically hailed the move as a possible "turning point" for the company.
Here comes the real weird part about this time: people don't seem to care. Over the past few days, some blogs mildly commented on the change and the fact that it was controversial a few years ago. The commenters on Facebook's announcement post are, well, Facebook comments. A solid quarter of them are spam; half are questions about other features and privacy settings on the site; and the remainder raised concerns about the new feature. "Why is facebook developing things no one needs and no one wants?" Meanwhile, some people in other countries actually asked Facebook to give them the feature too. What happened to the outrage? Where did the fury go? Has Facebook finally won the war on privacy?
It's really hard to answer any of those questions. Maybe everyone is just distracted by Facebook's new ultra creepy feature that lets you track your friends' movements through the GPS chips in their phones. The best explanation, though, probably centers around the fact that we have very short attention spans, when it comes to the Internet. We already wore out the facial recognition debate in 2011, the first time Facebook tried this crap, did we not? Everybody from Sen. Al Franken to the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the issue. Meanwhile, Google bragged that it possessed its own version of facial recognition technology but has chosen not to use it due to privacy concerns, and Facebook jousted with European authorities over how they could make the feature acceptable. Are we basically bored with the debate?
Another more likely explanation is simply that our notions of privacy are evolving, just like Mark Zuckerberg said they would. Facebook has become infamous for pushing features out to its users, features that blur the lines between what's acceptible privacy-wise and what's unconstitutional. Zuckerberg's explanation for doing this is now infamous, too. Zuckerberg told Michael Arrington at a TechCrunch event:
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. 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.
Everybody slammed Zuck for these remarks, arguing that it was pretty presumtuous that Facebook got to dictate "what the current social norms are." But the new features that were in question then — making basic profile information public and searchable — endured, despite the initial protest. The smooth relaunch of the facial recognition feature suggests that this can and will happen again.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Anything could happen in the next few weeks. People might notice that Facebook bots are scanning their faces and start a White House petition to get Facebook to shut the software down. The FTC could turn around and hit Facebook with some privacy violation, especially since they're subject to audits. Google could even spark another public converation about facial recognition software in an under-handed attempt to call out Facebook.
Dealing in hypotheticals isn't very useful for the average Facebook user right now, though. You probably just want to know how to turn the software off. It can be done in three semi-easy steps:
- Click on the gear icon in the upper righthand corner of the screen when logged in to Facebook and then navigate to "Privacy Settings."
- Select "Timeline and Tagging" from the menu on the lefthand side of the page.
- Look for "Who sees tag suggestions…" about halfway down the page and change the option under it to "No one."
That'll do it for now. That, or you can just start wearing sunglasses or awkward "privacy visors."