Franken grills Facebook over obscure facial recognition policy [VIDEO]

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken grilled Facebook over what he contended was an obscure and hard to find policy about its facial recognition technology during a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday.

Franken held court with two separate witness panels in order to discuss how the development of facial recognition technology for law enforcement and consumer purposes could impact citizen and consumer privacy rights. While the application of such technology has measurable benefits, concern has been raised that such technology might be abused by both governments and private corporations. Panelists also expressed concern that social networks are changing how people think about privacy.

User pictures have been a central feature of the Facebook user experience since the company’s inception. Facebook’s own facial recognition technology allows users to easily identify friends and “tag” them in their pictures. Use of the technology is currently a default setting for users, who are given the choice to opt out if they do not wish to use it.

Rob Sherman, Facebook’s Manager of Privacy and Public Policy, defended Facebook’s opt-out policy of its facial recognition technology due to Facebook already being an opt-in experience to use the social network. Sherman also noted that the technology only shares information between friends, not with strangers or applications.

Franken suggested that he and Sherman were “going to have to agree to disagree,” citing Facebook’s competitor Google as an example of one company that allows users to opt-in — rather than opt-out — to using its facial recognition technology. He also suggested that Facebook’s facial recognition policy was hard to find, claiming that users have to go through six different screens to get to information about their facial recognition technology.

A simple search for “facial recognition”, however, through Facebook’s Help Center search engine will also produce the query, “How does Facebook suggest tags for my friends?” From there, users are presented with information about how to tag and remove photos, as well as information about the company’s facial recognition technology.

Sherman — clearly uncomfortable and caught off-guard by the political theater of Franken’s visual aid, a hard to read sign which showed a different page than he was prepared to explain — fumbled to recover and explain to the senator the details of the policy.

“I think that the page that you’re looking at is one of the pages in our Help Center that provides information about how tagging works on Facebook,” said Sherman. “The Help Center content that you’re talking about, which I think is available from that page, does describe facial recognition, uses the word facial recognition specifically, and provides some detail about the way in which the templates that we use, the files that include the facial recognition data are stored.”

Franken, not satisfied with Sherman’s response, insisted that the answers users were looking for were “six clicks away” and therefore not easily found.

“I’m not sure about the number,” stumbled Sherman. “I don’t think that’s right, but I’m not sure.”

“You’re head of this at Facebook?” asked Franken.

“I’m one of the many people who work on privacy at Facebook,” said Sherman.

“What is your title?,” asked Franken.

“I’m the manager of privacy and public policy,” Sherman responded.

Seemingly unamused, Franken thanked Sherman and moved on to the next witness to continue his questions.

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