June 9, 2011 6:19 am

Facebook hit by privacy complaints

Facebook was facing a fresh backlash from privacy advocates on Thursday as opposition mounted to its handling of a new facial recognition feature that has been added to the social networking service in recent weeks.

A number of privacy groups have been asked to back a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in the US being organised by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, which also led a 2009 protest against the company, according to people contacted about the matter. EPIC could not be reached for comment late on Wednesday.

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Facebook, meanwhile, said it had received “almost no user complaints” about the new feature, and that, after some regulators raised questions, it was “providing them with additional information which we are confident will satisfy any concerns they will have.”

Signs of the latest organised protest to emerge over Facebook’s handling of privacy issues came a day after it was revealed that the company had been introducing the facial recognition feature to users around the world without first alerting them to the timing of the change.

That led Facebook hurriedly to update an earlier blog post to disclose the wide international roll-out of the new feature and to admit that it should have handled the process differently.

“We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them,” Facebook said in a statement on Tuesday.

The new feature tries to match the faces in photos that users upload to their Facebook albums with the names of their friends, then prompts them to “tag” the pictures with the names. The automated suggestions are designed to make it easier for users who find it a chore to write in the names of friends in every picture, according to Facebook.

The company said it had not changed the process of having users decide whether or not to apply the suggested tags of their friends, then alerting those friends that they have been identified and giving them the right to have their names removed.

Facebook has added an option that lets users opt out of the new feature, though it did not alert them when the new feature took effect or when the option was added.

“No action is taken on a person’s behalf, and all suggestions can be ignored,” the company said. “If for any reason someone doesn’t want their name to be suggested, they can disable the feature in their privacy settings.”

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, one of the groups contacted about backing the EPIC complaint, said that Facebook should not have included users automatically, but should have given them an “opt-in” that let them first decide if they wanted the feature.

She also said that it was “not a trivial task” for the site’s users “to be ever-vigilant about keeping up with the latest features and taking advantage of privacy settings,” and called on the company to explain how it was keeping the new facial recognition data secure and to promise never to hand it over to any third parties.

While her group sympathised with EPIC’s concerns it had decided not to join the complaint, Ms Givens said. Another group, the Centre for Digital Democracy, based in Washington, said it was adding its name to the protest.

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