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Facebook messenger can now recognise faces, but will the EU allow it?

Thursday 12 November 2015, by SIGNIS

London, Brussels, November 12th, 2015 (The guardian/SIGNIS). Facebook’s Messenger app has a new feature: it can now recognise the face of user’s friends in photographs uploaded to the service. This new facial recognition feature is rolling out in Australia first, but might not be able to come to Europe at all, due to privacy issues.
Given the social network’s long-running squabble with European data protection regulators over whether or not facial recognition infringes on the right to privacy, this feature might never happen in Europe.

For users who have the feature, dubbed “photo magic”, enabled, Messenger will now peek into their camera rolls and analyse recent photos to see if there are any faces it recognises. If there are, it will prompt them to share it with a notification.

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Mark Zuckerberg talks about the Messenger app during the Facebook F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

A Facebook spokesman said that the “optional new feature” is designed “to make sharing photos in Messenger even easier and more fun”. “Sending photos of friends, and particularly groups of friends, is still too complicated. With Photo Magic, Messenger recognises your friends in the photos you take and enables you to share your pictures with the friends in them in just two taps.”

However, it’s possible for users to opt out of being automatically recognised in photos uploaded by their friends by changing a setting in the “timeline and tagging” section of their Facebook options.

In European countries, it could take a while before this new feature appears. Indeed, the company’s first attempt to introduce facial recognition in 2011 was slammed by the Irish data protection authority, which forced the withdrawal of the feature a few months later.

It took until 2014 for “Tag Suggest”, as the initial facial recognition feature is known, to return to European shores, and even then it was only in a limited fashion: Europeans can use the feature to tag US users who happen to have it turned on, but can’t set Facebook to automatically recognise other Europeans.

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