Facial Recognition in Photo Sharing Sites

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While researching information for another blog article, I ran across an article where Shutterfly was sued for using facial recognition in their database.  So, I had to jump on this as facial recognition and tagging are used more and more in photo sharing sites.  So what is facial recognition and tagging?  And, how does it affect you?   In order for us to learn about facial recognition, we need to take a look at tagging first.

Photo Tagging

TaggingPhoto tagging is a way of labeling photos so that viewers know who is who in the picture. This can be done either on your computer or online in a photo-sharing site.  A tag is like a label or a keyword and is a form of Metadata.  Adding a tag to a photo or video makes searching more useful.

On your computer, there are a variety of photo organizing software tools that allow you to tag photos.  Adobe Lightroom is a common desktop tool.  Also, if you have a Windows PC, you can add tags in Windows Explorer.

With most photo sharing sites, photos can only be tagged by the user that uploads the photo, but on some sites photos can be tagged by others as well, such as Facebook. These tags can be searched for across the entire Internet, on separate websites or in private data bases.

Facial Recognition

Facial RecognitionHave you seen the show, Person of Interest?  While this is a fictional show, the premise of the show is based on facial recognition.  Luckily, it hasn’t advanced to that stage…yet.  To summarize what facial recognition is; it is a software application capable of identifying a person from a digital image or a video frame,  by analyzing and comparing patterns.

Computer systems though don’t see faces the way we see faces.  It must learn to recognize faces based on patterns of shapes and color.  So, how does it compare my facial features?  One of the ways is by comparing selected facial features from the image to a facial database.  This is where tagging comes in.  Every time you tag someone in a photo sharing site, such as Shutterfly or Facebook, the information is being stored in a database. The more times a person is tagged in a photo, the computer system will learn to recognize that person.

Is this a good thing?

There is an advantage to facial recognition.  If you’re trying to organize photos, making it easier to find in the near or distant future; it’s great.  But, not everyone is comfortable with that idea.  As in the case of the Shutterfly suit mentioned at the begging.  I prefer not to have someone else tagging photos of me without my knowledge, let alone my permission.   There are sites though, unlike Facebook and Shutterfly that allow you to tag photos with added security in mind.  These sites are intended for photo organizing and sharing securely.  As my mother always said, “you get what you pay for“.

So, how can we prevent someone from tagging us?  Before I answer that, we need to first understand some privacy features in two popular sites.

Photo Sharing and Privacy

Let’s take a look at some of the privacy features in Shutterfly and Facebook.

Shutterfly’s Privacy notification:

If you tag yourself, friends, family, or others in pictures, we may use facial recognition technology to help you tag and organize your pictures. These tags are based on the information you have provided to us and your recognition of individuals in certain photos. Using this information, we may suggest tags for your other photos. By using this tagging feature, you consent to receiving these suggestions. You, and not Shutterfly, are responsible for any tags you create.

Facebook’s Data/Privacy Policy

We also use information we have to provide shortcuts and suggestions to you. For example, we are able to suggest that your friend tag you in a picture by 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. If this feature is enabled for you, you can control whether we suggest that another user tag you in a photo using the “Timeline and Tagging” settings.

Do you see some similarities here?  In both cases, they acknowledge the use of facial recognition by us tagging other individuals.

Controlling Tagging by Others

Although we cannot prevent others from tagging us in Facebook; Facebook does allow us to control what appears in our timeline.  Something to note, you have to have an account in Facebook in order to be tagged.  So, if you do not have a Facebook account, no worries at this time.  Go to Settings > Timeline and Tagging to control your Facebook tags.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Shutterfly.  In Shutterfly, a shared site is created first.  Then as photos are added, the site owner has the opportunity to add tags.  If you have a Shutterfly account, site members will receive an email notification that they have been tagged.  If the person tagged is not a site member, the owner has an opportunity to send them an email.  The settings are very lacking to say the least.  One feature available regarding tags is the owner can restrict who sees the tags.  But by default, this option is set to everyone.  So we’re at the creator’s mercy.  As in the Shutterfly suit example, depending on the privacy permissions someone sets, our photos could potentially be available to everyone.

So, what can we do?

In summary, the more photos we share online the more advanced online photo sharing sites become.  There are numerous photo sharing sites available, and unfortunately in some cases, we will not be able to prevent others from tagging us.  What we can do though, is be mindful of what photos we appear in.  And, if we do not want to appear in a photo sharing site we need to inform our family and friends.  But, in my opinion it still will not prevent others from tagging us, but it can help minimize.

Understand, I do not want to degrade photo sharing sites.  They are useful, fun and allow us the opportunity to share information with family and friends that we do not see on a daily basis.   We just have to do our due diligence, read the privacy statement and be sensitive to others.

Additional Resources

Here is the article that inspired me to create this article.  http://fortune.com/2015/06/18/shutterfly-lawsuit-facial-recognition/

Here is another great article to read about Facebook and facial recognitionhttp://www.quepublishing.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1746824

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