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Monday, June 13, 2011

Monday—The Ranting Corner—Facebook Privacy Fail

It's all about privacy, or the loss of...

Four consumer advocacy groups—
  1. The public interest research group, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
  2. The Internet safety group, The Center for Digital Democracy
  3. The California-based Consumer Watchdog; and 
  4. The consumer education group, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
—filed a complaint today against facebook asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate facebook's new image identification system and to force facebook to stop compiling user biodata to be used in this automated system.  U.S. Representative, Ed Markey (D-Mass), co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, happens to agree. 

The complaint contends that the covert collection and compilation of personal information to be used for automated tagging, without the opt-in consent of users, adversely impacts consumers and qualifies as unfair and deceptive trade practices.  The complaint also points out that the recognition system is under the sole control of facebook, which eliminates users' control over their own images and violates facebook's own privacy policy.  The FTC has taken action against online sites for misleading users and violating their own privacy policies.
Opt-out of facebook's new tagging feature
Biodata is the biographical information drawn from a user's profile that creates a distinct impression of the person.  It contains information about work history, hobbies, education, family, and photos.  It is basically the kind of information that people add to their profiles.  Facebook's new tag suggestion feature uses this biodatabase to automatically recognize individuals in photos and tag them without their consent.  If you thought it was a PITA to be tagged without your permission in some photo that you'd never seen before, at least you could blame it on the individual who tagged you.  But, now this new facial recognition system does it for you automatically! 

The complaint was filed with the FTC six days after facebook rolled out the new system (on June 7th).  Do you remember getting that nice, clear notice last week from facebook telling you all about it?  Remember being told that the default was set to enable the feature?  And, do you recall how facebook clearly explained how to opt-out of the new system?  Chances are you don't because facebook didn't do any of the above.  

Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, that is precisely why facebook's actions qualify as unfair and deceptive trade practices.  Anything that is likely to mislead a consumer who is acting in a reasonable way under normal circumstances is unfair and deceptive.  Not informing users of a new feature involving the use of their own images is a pretty big omission that seems unfair and deceptive to me.  Users should have been informed that the feature was about to be launched, and account holders should have been given a link for opting-out.

The good news is that you can still opt-out of the automated system, but you have to find it in your privacy settings, first.  Then, you have to recognize the obfuscating terminology and figure out which setting to change.  If you want to opt-out, and you haven't changed your privacy settings, here's how to do it:

Go to your Account > Privacy Settings > Customize Settings > Things Others Share > Suggest Photos of Me to Friends > Click on, Edit Settings > Disable > Hit, OKAY

The important setting to look for is written in light gray just under, Suggest Photos of Me to Friends:  When photos look like me, suggest my name  

Do you see the word, "tag" in there anywhere?  I don't.  Facebook deliberately avoids the word "tag" because experienced fb users generally don't like to be tagged all over the place, especially without their permission.   So, fb avoids using the word, "tag," and uses, "suggest," in its place.  But, suggest and tag are two different things, aren't they?  Suggest is ethereal; it's softer, it's fuzzy around the edges.  Making a suggestion is different than making a positive ID.  I'm suggesting that the guy in the photo is Bob, OR I'm saying that I know it is Bob, and he should wear a sign around his neck that says, BOB.  The latter is facebook's idea of a suggestion.  

My suggestion to every facebook user is to deactivate your account right now and find a free photo-sharing site like Flikr, Picasa, or Photobucket to share your pix with family and friends.  If you need a facebook account to stay in touch with people, or to post links to a group like I do, either pull the pix that you don't want to be automatically tagged (leaving them up is an automatic invasion of privacy for your friends and family), or deactivate your personal account and create a new one with only those pix that you want tagged.

Protect your privacy and the privacy of your friends and family.  Zuckerburg, et al., can go suck a rock.