The social network is staying quiet on when Canadian users might get the controversial new feature. Plus, a University of Ottawa online privacy watchdog gives his take on how Facebook could actually use the technology to enhance user privacy

Facebook opts out of facial recognition for Canada

Facebook Inc. has opted against bringing its new facial recognition feature to Canadian users, offering no specific timeline on the technology’s arrival to the country.
 
The social networking giant’s “tag suggestion” feature, which attempts to automatically scan and identify the names of friends in uploaded Facebook photos, was announced in the U.S. late last year and has been rolled out to some regions. Facebook told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday that the company does not launch every feature it creates globally and has no current plans to push out the feature in Canada.

But the announcement won’t necessarily appease Canadian privacy activists.

David Fewer, director of Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa, said that Facebook needs to obtain active consent before it scans and collects the facial patterns and biometric data of any Canadian. He added that it is unclear from Facebook’s announcement if the social network is actually avoiding this collection among Canadian users.

“Facebook has simply said that it is not offering the service to or about Canadians,” he said.

The fact that Facebook has chosen not to offer this feature to Canadians as an opt-in service underscores the company’s lack of understanding on privacy, Fewer said.

“Privacy laws are about giving Canadians control over their personal information,” he said. “That means giving them the ability to opt-in to this service, not denying the availability of the service entirely. Some Canadians would welcome this feature on Facebook.”

Fewer added that the social network is missing a tremendous opportunity to actually enhance user privacy with this technology. One example, he said, could be notifying a user when they appear in a photograph uploaded to the site.

“Currently, I only know when I’ve been tagged,” he said. “With facial pattern recognition technology, I can also know whenever I’m recognizable in a photo, whether I’ve been tagged or not. It’s disappointing that Facebook is not offering this service.”

Facebook spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.

The feature has been a point of contention for several U.S. advocacy groups over the last few months, many of which filed complaints with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

A complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in June, which asks the FTC to force Facebook to stop collecting users’ biometric data with opt-in consent, alleges that the social networking giant’s new feature actually violates the site’s own privacy policy. It added that “tag suggestion” also constitutes unfair and deceptive trade practices.

“Facebook possesses the largest collection of photographs of individuals of any corporation in the world,” the letter said. “According to an extrapolation of photo upload data reported by Facebook, the company now possesses about 60 billion photographs. There is every reason to believe that unless the commission acts promptly, Facebook will routinely automate facial identification and eliminate any pretense of user control over the use of their own images for online identification.”

In response to criticism from U.S. politicians and advocacy groups, Facebook went ahead with the feature, but has since started running online ads which promote an opt-out capability. The ads are linked to users’ privacy settings.

– With files from Sharon Gaudin, ComputerWorld U.S.

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