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Facebook Isn't Giving Everyone the Same Privacy Controls

UPDATED with comment from Facebook. This story was originally published May 20, 2019 at 5 p.m. Eastern time.

Have you ever posted a photo on Facebook and found that the website knows exactly who the other people in the photo are? Thank Facebook's AI: The company has been teaching its algorithms to recognize its users' faces since 2010. 

In 2017, Facebook announced that a new feature would allow any user to opt out of this facial-recognition feature. Unfortunately, a new report indicates that it hasn't quite followed through.

Credit: Facebook

(Image credit: Facebook)

Consumer Reports, examining 31 U.S. Facebook accounts, found the Face Recognition toggle missing from the Settings pages of just over 25 percent of users. Tom's Guide examined seven accounts and found two that did not have the feature -- just under 30 percent.

Users without the option have no way to opt out of tag suggestions.

Users without the option have no way to opt out of tag suggestions.

What determines whether you have this feature? We're not sure, but we've got a theory. We noticed that the two accounts that lacked the toggle both belonged to users who didn't use them very often.

Could it be that Facebook doesn't collect recognition data in the first place unless your account has a certain number of photos available? It seems plausible -- but we can't draw conclusions from our small sample size. 

We've reached out to Facebook for an explanation but haven't heard back yet. Consumer Reports has also sent a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating the matter.

This isn't a great time for Facebook to be messing around with facial recognition. A photo storage app recently caught a lot of flak for secretly using millions of uploaded user photos to train facial-recognition AI for sale to law enforcement and military entities. Meanwhile, San Francisco just approved a first-of-its-kind ban on facial recognition technology. 

In the wake of Facebook's many other missteps concerning user data, one would hope that the company would be paying close attention to the privacy-based needs of its users. If Facebook hasn't made the feature available to all when it claims it has, that's a serious problem. 

We'll be sure to update this story if we hear anything more. In the meantime, read up on how to stop Facebook from sharing your data.

UPDATE: Facebook responded to our questions with the following comment:

"Consumer Reports is incorrect in its claim that some people aren't given the option of controlling their face recognition setting. Everyone on Facebook can turn face recognition on or off, either through the standalone face recognition setting or through the Tag Suggestions setting. We are, however, moving toward a single control."

Monica Chin is a writer at The Verge, covering computers. Previously, she was a staff writer for Tom's Guide, covering artificial intelligence and the internet of things. You can usually find her at poetry slams, attempting to exercise, or yelling at people on Twitter.