In 2012, Facebook came under fire from privacy advocates and eventually turned off all facial recognition services in the EU, which automatically recognised and suggested the names of friends from photos that you uploaded to the social network. But did you know that Facebook appears to have restored an aspect of the service in Europe? Facebook is now suggesting photo tags to users uploading pictures to Facebook in Europe, but only if the photo subjects are friends from the U.S., and only if those friends have enabled tag suggest functionality on their profiles.
The resurfacing of Facebook’s “tag suggest”, as the facial recognition feature is known, was first brought to my attention by a Facebook Friend. Doing some tests on my own timeline and those of a couple of other friends whose accounts are registered in the EU, here is what we found:
If you upload a picture of a friend whose account is registered as being in the U.S., and that person has enabled the feature for identifying his or her image, that person’s face is identified (to the best of Facebook’s technology) and that person is tagged:
This not impacting photos of EU users’ faces, from what we understand. In other words, if you upload a picture with friends who are based in Europe, they are not tagged. If you upload a picture of two people, with one in the U.S. and the other not, only the U.S. person gets tagged, if he’s enabled the feature in his privacy settings. Like here:
It seems that this is a recent change: as you can see in the first picture above, you are also now getting a prompt for tag suggestions to add other tags and see other suggestions from Facebook. It seems that the tag icon in the corner is only programmed to come up for some pictures — the ones that fit the above criteria.
The way this works has been confirmed for me by friends based in the UK, and it’s working exactly the same in Germany, too, my friend Matthäus Krzykowski tells me.
We have reached out to Facebook for more details about what is going on here, when they turned this on, and whether there is more to come. For now, here is some context:
The “tag suggest” feature was something that Facebook has been using and developing for some time now, partly bolstered by technology from Face.com, an Israeli startup that it acquired in 2012. At least some of Face.com’s employees are still working for Facebook.
But while tag suggest has been humming along in markets like the U.S., Facebook turned it off for users in Europe back in September 2012, in response to a list of features that Facebook needed to change on its platform, which were flagged by Ireland’s Data Protection Authority (DPA). The DPA report was compiled in response to a privacy complaint made in 2011 by none other than Max Schrems — the same Austrian law student who is now leading the charge on a class action suit against the company over alleged privacy violations (a thorn in Facebook’s side, indeed).*
Because Facebook’s international headquarters is in Ireland, rulings made by courts and regulators in that market have wide-ranging ramifications, and the decisions impact how Facebook operates across the European Union.
But although Facebook made a very clear decision in 2012 to cut the facial recognition feature off for all new European users, and to delete all tag suggest data for existing European users by October of that year, it also left a loophole for how it could live to tag suggest another day.
“As our regulator in Europe, the Irish Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is constantly working with us to ensure that we keep improving on the high standards of control that we have built into our existing tools,” a spokesperson said at the time.
“This audit is part of an ongoing process of oversight, and we are pleased that, as the Data Protection Commissioner said, the latest announcement is confirmation that we are not only compliant with European data protection law but we have gone beyond some of their initial recommendations and are fully committed to best practice in data protection compliance.”
The spokesperson goes on, however, to make clear that Facebook will be revisiting facial recognition when it figures out how to square it with the regulators:
“It’s worth us reiterating that once we have agreed on an approach on the best way to notify and educate users with the DPC, we hope to bring back this useful tool.”
While that day not arrived, what we seem to have here is at least a small step in that direction.
*For more context…. the argument for Schrems and others opposed to things like facial recognition on Facebook is that it gives less control to individuals for how they are tagged and organised and potentially monetized in Facebook’s database. The other side of the debate is that this can be a useful way of tagging and alerting friends to pictures of them, and it’s not clear that the data is repurposed in the way that would negatively affect your experience on the service. I’m personally in favor of more control of your data, if that is what you personally want, because that still gives individuals the option of having less control if you actually don’t care one way or the other.
Post updated throughout with more clarification about how only users in the U.S. who have enabled tag suggest will come up with suggested tags in photos uploaded by their Facebook networks in Europe.