Is Facebook Franchising Your Privacy?

Whenever we feel like governments are prying on our privacy, we go ballistic. We argue for and defend our constitutionally endowed liberties in order to secure our persons, papers and effects. But what if instead of the government prying, it’s a private entity, one that we embraced wholeheartedly, one that provided us a public space to shout our thoughts, write our personal notes and share our photos and videos with friends and to the rest of the world through cyberspace; and yet, is doing something else in the dark? Yes. I’m talking about Facebook.

Recently, the world’s most favorite book (pun intended) has found itself in another controversy after it automatically enabled its users’ photo tagging tools – and it did so in a very stealthy fashion.

The “Tag Suggestions” tool uses a face recognition technology that speeds up your ability to tag and label your friends and acquaintances on Facebook. Originally, this new Facebook feature was only available in the US, but Facebook rolled out this feature to “most countries.”

In a blog post from the security firm Sophos, it said that users of the social web reported that Facebook enabled the facial recognition option in the last few days without notifying them. Facebook, which announced in December that it planned to introduce the service in the United States, acknowledged on Tuesday that the feature was in fact now more widely available.

But when Facebook was asked about the Sophos blog post, all it said was that they should have been clear with people during the roll-out process.

Other photo software and online services are also available from Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto which use facial recognition technology. In Apple’s iPhoto’s case, its users are given control over the use of facial recognition technology. They can choose whether they want to enable it or not. The use of the technology on an Internet social network like Facebook, which counts more than 500 million users, is different.

Is this something that we should worry about? Yes. This thorny issue should not be taken sitting down. What happens with facial recognition technology is that your facial features are profiled which makes it easy for you to be tracked.

Imagine this: You’re in a party with some of your friends, but majority of the people in the pub are folks you don’t personally know. In your moment of weakness (or shall I say drunkenness), group photos were taken with you in it. Not really a big deal, right? You’re probably thinking, “It happens all the time, anyway.”

But here’s the catch. When the person who took the photos, but whom you don’t know, posted the pictures on his Facebook wall, your face gets automatically tagged. Unless you’re like Narcissus who loves his own image flashed whether in cyberspace or in the public toilet, we both know there’s a problem here.

No, no. I am not concocting Bourne trilogy scenarios. I love the trilogy as it is. Today it could be your face getting recognized without your permission, but tomorrow your beautiful facial features can be used for marketing purposes. Since Facebook now has access to how you look, it can also have the capability to track your activities on Facebook like what apps and links you regularly click. It becomes easier for Facebook advertisers to identify what kind of user you are and triangulate the kind of apps and online products that will appear on your wall. And if you don’t believe me, try going back to your personal profile information. What advertisers get from that are enough for them to send you apps and ads on your wall that generally reflect your social networking behavior.

I like Facebook. It allows me to connect with friends and relatives and see their wacky photos and videos. I can also check on my younger brother who is working in Manitoba, Canada. I get to chat with former students and find out what’s new in the world. In fact, it’s through Facebook and other similar social networking sites that writers like me are read.

However, what I don’t like is when Facebook’s corporatism intrudes in my cyber mobility. It invades my privacy when it enabled its face recognition feature by default and without my consent. Of course some of you can say “you can disable it anyway,” but that’s precisely my point.

There’s a difference between asking you if you want the face tagging tool enabled and you already getting tagged and if you’re not happy about it, you can always un-tag yourself.

Privacy is about your choice if you want to opt-in, not when you have the choice to opt-out when the damage has already been done. You don’t want people to enter your house and then ask you, “May I come in?” when they’re already in your living room, right?