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Facebook's Latest Privacy Changes: Tag, You're You

A bigger facial recognition database could allow Facebook to collect more data about whom we are interacting with in the real world.
Dado Ruvic
A bigger facial recognition database could allow Facebook to collect more data about whom we are interacting with in the real world.

Writing a post about Facebook changing its privacy policies can feel like a fool's errand.

Nearly everyone who has a pulse — and lives part of his life online — most likely knows how Facebook makes its money and understands why this service, which connects 1.1 billion people, is free.

But here we go again.

Facebook is updating its privacy policies — one more time.

These changes — driven in part by a recent class-action settlement — are designed to allow Facebook to continue using images and information about its members, including minors, in so-called sponsored stories (ads) that appear on the site.

The new rules make it clear that simply by signing up, a 13-year-old not only gives his or her own permission to appear in ads but is stating that a parent is consenting to commercial use of his or her image as well. The rules say:

"If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) [in advertising]."

But the privacy tweaks don't stop there.

Facebook is also expanding its use of facial recognition. It says the changes will make it easier for you, your friends and acquaintances to tag your likeness in their pictures. A bigger facial recognition database should also allow Facebook to collect more data about whom we are interacting with in the real world.

Until now, for the facial recognition and tagging program to work, you or a friend needed to give Facebook some information to start with — someone needed to tag a picture of your face. Now, Facebook plans to use members' profile pictures automatically.

This is how Facebook explains it:

"We are able to suggest that your friend tag you in a picture by scanning and comparing your friend's pictures to information we've put together from your profile pictures and the other photos in which you've been tagged."

Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan defended the move to All Things D. "It's actually a good thing to be tagged in more photos, because that's how you'll know they exist on Facebook," Egan said in an interview. "Then from there, you can take the photos down or, if you need to, report them."

Facial recognition has been a sensitive subject for tech companies. Although both Facebook and Google have invested heavily in the technology, both have been cautious about rolling it out.

The timing of these tweaks was determined by a legal settlement this week of a class-action lawsuit that alleged Facebook was violating millions of users' rights to control their own images in advertising.

The suit challenged Facebook's sponsored stories ads, which show images of Facebook users to their friends as part of ad campaigns.

The settlement allows adults to opt out of the program — for two years. And parents of children on Facebook will be able to opt out on behalf of their kids — either by establishing a parent-child relationship on the site and then changing the child's settings or by sending in a notarized letter.

That proposal was mocked earlier this year by some class-action experts and privacy scholars. "Do you know what is hilarious about that?" said Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown University. "That becomes just another data collection mechanism for Facebook. I mean, just think how valuable it would be for them to find out who is related to whom on Facebook. For marketing purposes — I mean, my God — parents are already targeted."

The settlement was also opposed by parents who argued it didn't go far enough in protecting children's rights on Facebook. A U.S. judge in San Francisco, however, ruled that the settlement deal was better than nothing and that it offered more protections for parents than would likely result from a trial.

Parents of minors, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg wrote, "will have further opt-out options. The injunctive relief, while not as robust as some would prefer, contributes to the conclusion that the settlement as a whole is fair, reasonable, and adequate."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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