This week, he sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to rethink the company's plan to use people's profile photos for a new purpose: automatic tagging suggestions.
“Facial recognition technology has profound implications for privacy,” writes Franken, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. “Cookies track you across the Internet; with a little tech savvy, you can block them or delete them after the fact. Facial recognition tracks you in the real world, from cameras stationed on street corners and in shopping centers, and through photographs taken by friends and strangers alike.”
When Facebook first rolled out automatic tagging in December of 2010, the feature scanned photos that users uploaded, and determined whether any of those users' friends were pictured. If so, Facebook suggested “tagging” the photos with the friends' names -- unless the friends had opted out.
At the time Facebook's facial-recognition database was limited to photos were people had already been tagged by their friends -- but not users' profile pictures. Two weeks ago, however, Facebook said it planned to make tag suggestions based on users' profile pictures.
Franken says that this change could result in at least two problematic consequences. One is that Facebook would be able to dramatically expand its “faceprint” database. The other is that the new database “would also likely capture some of Facebook’s least active users -- those who are visible in their public profile photo but are not tagged in any other photos.” Franken points out that those people often are the ones who might not be aware of the recent changes.
Facebook originally intended for the change to its tagging service -- as well as a host of other changes -- to take effect last week. But the company has held off on the revisions in the wake of complaints, including a request that the Federal Trade Commission investigate whether the new policies violate a 2012 consent decree. That order bans the company from changing its default settings so as to give users less privacy than in the past. The FTC is reportedly looking into the matter.