Facebook Rolls Out Facial Recognition Feature

Robert Siegel interviews Sharon Gaudin, senior writer for Computerworld, about Facebook's facial recognition technology. The social network has been rolling out a new automatic feature that helps users tag their friends and family in photos they upload to the site. Privacy advocates argue the new tool should be opt-in rather than opt-out — and have raised concerns about what Facebook might do with the biometric data.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to another dispute brewing in the tech world, this one involving Facebook. The social network has been rolling out a new photo feature. It helps you ID your friends or family in pictures that you upload to the site. Now, when you post photos from that latest birthday party, Facebook uses facial recognition technology to suggest who else is in that photo with you.

It's an automatic feature that's supposed to save you time and effort, but it has alarmed privacy advocates. Several have recently called on the Federal Trade Commission to order Facebook to suspend the feature. Privacy regulators from the European Union said last week that they are also looking into the issue.

For more on this, we're joined by Sharon Gaudin, senior writer for Computerworld. Hiya.

Ms. SHARON GAUDIN (Senior Writer, Computerworld): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, what are the concerns of the privacy advocates that somebody's name should be identified with the photo?

Ms. GAUDIN: What they're telling me is, it's a matter of privacy. It's a matter of high creepy factor, if you will - having a company that can identify you simply by your face. They don't need any other documentation or data about you. The advocates are saying it's just out of line to go this far.

SIEGEL: Because, in effect, once pictures are associated with a name on Facebook, there would be some record of the biometric data of your face.

Ms. GAUDIN: Exactly. And it's going to be a large, large database. Think how many users Facebook has - anywhere from reportedly 500 million to 700 million users worldwide. So that's a lot of identification going on around the world.

SIEGEL: But think of how many of them misspell things or stick their tongues out when they're having their picture taken, or do things that might throw a wrench into all this. How accurate is this system?

Ms. GAUDIN: Well, we're going to have to wait and see. Facebook started testing it in really small groups last December - pretty quietly. And just last week, they came out and said that they're going to be rolling this out, and they're collecting data. And we're just going to have to see how it goes.

SIEGEL: This isn't the first privacy concern that's been voiced to Facebook. How do they typically respond to questions like this?

Ms. GAUDIN: Well, Facebook has found itself embroiled in a lot of privacy issues over the past year. But what they are saying is, they're trying to make it easier for people to share.

For instance, one of the issues that privacy advocates have with facial recognition is that it's opt-out, which means that it's automatically turned on for everybody. And if you don't want it, you have to go in and say, I don't want it.

Now, privacy advocates would rather have you be out of it, and then go in and turn it on if that's what you want. But Facebook says look, we turn it on for everybody because Facebook is about sharing, and we're trying to make it easier to share.

SIEGEL: Do we have any idea how many false positives it might generate - how many people look enough like your friend Joe that they'll describe that as your friend Joe?

Ms. GAUDIN: Ah, we don't know yet. I guess we're going to have to wait and see. But you know, I was saying to friends just this weekend, I hope there aren't a lot of people who look just like me doing really embarrassing things in their pictures.

SIEGEL: Well, Sharon Gaudin, thank you very much for talking today.

Ms. GAUDIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sharon Gaudin, senior writer for Computerworld, spoke to us from Portland, Maine.

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