Why Facebook’s tagging policies suck

What's wrong with the ability to tag other people's photos and videos? Plenty. Too bad Facebook just doesn't get it.

It seems everyone’s getting their knickers in a knot over Facebook’s facial recognition features. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a formal complaint with the FTC, asking them to investigate.

As I noted last week – and Forbes’ blogger Kashmir Hill concurs with me on this – Facebook’s facial recognition isn’t the privacy boogeyman people want to make it out to be. The real monster under the bed is Facebook tags. Today I thought I’d explain why.

[ See also: Facing facts: Facebook’s facial recognition ]

It’s one thing to post a picture or a video to Facebook of yourself doing something stupid. If you get in trouble it’s your own damned fault. But it’s quite another thing if someone else posts a picture of you doing something stupid, and then tags that image with a link to your profile so all of their friends know it’s you.

[img_assist|nid=174153|title=Facebook tags could make an ass out of you.|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=430|height=585]

What’s the harm of a few tags between friends? 

Let’s say you decide to blow off work for a few days and go to Cabo with your college pals. So you call in sick (cough, cough) and jet on down to sunny Mexico, where you have a wild and quasi-illegal time with your old buds. The whole time you’re sucking down tequila shooters, somebody’s snapping pics with their cell phone and uploading them to Facebook. Then he or she gets the bright idea of putting that little square over your face and tagging your photo with a link to your profile. 

You come home, hungover as hell, and sleep for two days straight.

You wake up to this:

* Your boss, who is also a Facebook friend (because she sent you an invite and it was too awkward to decline), sees you tagged in a photo having a wild time on the same day you were supposedly home sick in bed with a fever of 102. (You didn’t really like that job anyway.)

* Your significant other, who is of course a Facebook friend and follows your news feed assiduously, sees the photo tag and clicks it. Now she’s wondering why she wasn’t invited to the party, and who is that skanky blonde on your arm? (She was too clingy in any case.)

* That friend of a friend you barely knew who showed up with that killer homegrown got busted by the TSA on his way back through customs. Now the Feds are combing through his Facebook account to harvest information about his associates – and whose photo do they see with his lips around a bong? (You were always a big fan of “Prison Break,” and now you get to experience it first hand.)

Of course, Facebook did send an email alerting you that you’d been tagged in a friend’s photo. But you were busy sleeping. Or maybe you get tagged so often that you can’t keep up with these generic alerts. In any case, the onus is on you to erase the evidence before somebody else sees it.

This is why Facebook’s tagging policies suck. They take control over your personal information – and it doesn’t get much more personal than a photo -- and put it in the hands of someone else.

Obviously you shouldn’t lie to your boss, cheat on your girlfriend, drink too much tequila or abuse Schedule 1 narcotics – but it’s not Facebook’s job to rat you out. Naturally, you are too smart and social media savvy to share stuff like this on Facebook. But are your friends also too smart? Are you sure?

The above scenario is a friendly one. Imagine what someone who didn’t like you could do to your reputation using tags, if you weren’t paying close attention.

I thought, this seems like so obvious a flaw that even Facebook would notice. Surely I must be missing something. Somewhere in that Gordian Knot of Facebook privacy controls there must be some way to tell Facebook taggers to piss off.

I contacted Facebook to find out what the real story is about tags and what users can do to opt out. It was less helpful than I’d hoped.

I reached a global communications and public policy manager at Facebook who will remain unnamed. She proceeded to give me inaccurate information about how to opt out of photo tagging, claimed that you can only tag friends and “things or people that you are associated with” (also not true), and said I still fail to “fundamentally understand how tagging or for that matter Facebook works.”

That last one could be true. But she doesn’t seem to be doing much better.

Facebook’s own Help Center FAQs say it’s not possible to keep your friends from tagging pictures of you (short of asking them nicely, I suppose).

You can tag a photo with the name of any friend or public page, regardless of whether you’ve been associated with them in the past. You can also just tag it with freeform text, such as someone’s name. Facebook allegedly offers a way to add their email address to notify them they’ve been tagged, but damned if I could figure out how.

[img_assist|nid=174157|title=When Facebook's Only Me, isn't.|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=593|height=290]

Facebook’s privacy controls do appear to let you set the control for people who can see photos and videos you’re tagged in to “Only Me.” But in my tests, photos tagged with my name, using this privacy setting, still show up on friends’ pages. I can’t speak for Facebook, but that doesn’t fit my definition of “Only Me.”

The good news? According to this Help Center Page, Facebook does appear to offer a way to remove your data from its facial recognition database – which would likely assuage the fears of a great many people. To wit:

You can also request that we remove the summary of what your tagged photos have in common. On the Privacy Settings page, click Customize settings and use the controller labeled, "Delete Photo Comparison Data" if you don’t want it to be stored. This won’t untag photos you’re tagged in but will delete the summary information drawn from comparing any tagged photos of you.

Just one problem: If there’s a "Delete Photo Comparison Data" in Facebook’s privacy controls, I cannot find it.

Then again, I could just be missing something obvious. Because I fundamentally don’t understand how Facebook works.

(I’ve asked for more clarification on these matters, and will update this post if I get any.)

TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan does not fundamentally understand about 97.2 percent of most things. Visit his eHumor site eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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