Despite a Fix in Europe, Facebook Will Continue to Scan Your American Face

Despite a Fix in Europe, Facebook Will Continue to Scan Your American Face

Facebook announced a lengthy list of privacy-related tweaks to its site on Wednesday, following a sweeping and often less-than-flattering report from European Internet watchdogs. The Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), an agency that handles data protection (read: privacy) across Europe, provided 149 detailed pages of recommendations for how Facebook could better serve its users, and just as they did following similar scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook's press team was ready with an instant response. Action items abound -- 45 of them in fact. Not all of those action items, most notably one that will create more transparency about Facebook's use of facial recognition software, will apply to American users, however.

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Parsing through the legalese from the DPC (full report: PDF) and the PR-friendly blog post on the Facebook Public Policy Europe page is both boring and confusing, so we'll do our best to condense what the changes actually mean for users in the United States. (If you're hungry for a truly comprehensive guide, Josh Constine wrote a terrifically detailed post explaining all 45 changes at TechCrunch that's worth a look.) Though the company is still discussing a number of the changes, Facebook tells us that most of the changes will also carry over to the United States. These changes will affect everything from how advertisers are able to target specific users to how long Facebook retains user data to how the Facebook platform handles third-party app access to that data. However some of the changes will not apply to U.S. Facebook users, specifically and perhaps most controversially the facial recognition technology that powers the Tag Suggestions. Starting in January 2012, Facebook will make several tweaks to better education European users about this feature; Facebook tells us that the tweaks are only for users in the European Union. If you're unfamiliar with this feature, this screenshot (courtesy of TechCrunch) explains it in Facebook's own words:

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For the most part, Tag Suggestions are helpful. Tagging can be tedious, especially if you're a big Facebook Photo person, and as long as everybody's cool with being tagged, it also makes the Photo feature super useful and fun! We remember distinctly when Facebook introduced Photos, the tagging feature felt incredibly innovative and as innovations sometimes are, it proved both controversial and problematic. Facebook's upgraded the feature introducing the (very key) option for users to approve photo tags before that your name and a link to your profile shows up under those pictures of your mistake-laden Saturday night. As the explainer box above explains, Tag Suggestions also require approval, and you can easily ignore the suggestions.

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You cannot, however, avoid the creepiest part of it, until you make the effort to opt-out. This became the real point of contention for European privacy watchdogs and also irked U.S. users when the service was quietly launched a year ago. Wouldn't you be a little bit irked if suddenly Facebook's machines were scanning photos of your face, linking the facial fingerprint (mixed metaphor alert!) to your real identity and storing the data on Facebook servers. Who knows what kinds of zany ideas Mark Zuckerberg might come up with based on face data. The name of the company, obviously, continues to gain a very literal meaning. This facial recognition business, by the way, is what initially compelled the DPC to launch its own three-month-long audit.

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Are you upset about Facebook scanning your face? Well, for starters, you can follow these instructions to opt-out of the facial recognition features. Are you upset about the privacy principles -- or lack thereof -- that the social network continues to espouse? We don't have a how-to guide ready for that, but we can say that Facebook appears to be trying harder. Following the news sanctions that the FTC announced it would impose last month, this is now mandatory for the American company, and as its settlement with the FTC requires, Facebook faces federal audits into its privacy practices for the next 20 years. As Forbes's Kashmir Hill points out in her explanation of how these privacy audits will actually work, "Two decades is a long probation!"

It remains to be seen how the new European sanctions will affect American users in the long run. In the short run, Facebook will continue to scan your face until you opt out of the Tag Suggestions feature. Meanwhile, European regulators will presumably, especially the hardcore German ones, should cool it for a little while. And as Facebook continues to adjust how the specific responses of the DPC's recommendations will float across the pond, we'll keep you posted.