July 19, 2012, 2:26 PM — Members of a Senate subcommittee sought answers from a senior Facebook official about the social network's usage of facial-recognition technology at a hearing on Wednesday, marking the latest phase of the ongoing scrutiny the company has faced from privacy-conscious lawmakers and regulators.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, challenged Facebook's policy of setting the tag suggestions facial-recognition feature as a default, and then allowing users to opt out.
Franken was also critical of the privacy controls the company makes available to its users, saying at one point that it takes six clicks to navigate to the first page that mentions the term "facial recognition." Similarly, he suggested that the company has not been as forthcoming as it could be about how much data it collects and how that information is used, a familiar refrain from critics of the social network's privacy policies.
"I think Facebook could still do more to explain to its users how it uses facial recognition," Franken said.
Facebook Recognizes You
Facebook's tag suggestions feature uses facial-recognition technology to automatically suggest the names of people pictured in new photos that users upload to the site. Tag suggestions has been offline for several weeks as Facebook has been conducting maintenance, a move that was necessitated by the widespread usage of the feature, according to Rob Sherman, Facebook's manager of privacy and public policy. Sherman said that the tag suggestions feature is set to come back online "soon," though he did not specific a timeframe.
In testimony before the subcommittee, Sherman defended Facebook's stance on setting tag suggestions as a default feature offered on an opt-out basis, and sought to ease the senators' concerns about the scope of the facial-recognition technology on the social network.
"We think that's the appropriate choice because Facebook itself is an opt-in experience," Sherman said when asked about the opt-out default for tag suggestions. "People choose to be on Facebook because they want to share with each other."
"Beyond that, tag suggestions are only used in the context of an opt-in friend relationship on Facebook, which means that you wouldn't be suggested to somebody as a potential tag for a photo unless both parties to the relationship had already decided to communicate with one another on Facebook and had already seen each other's photos," he added. "So we're actually not exposing nay addition information to anybody as part of this process."
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