What to Do If You're Missing Facebook's Face Recognition Setting

The company says it plans to roll out a single facial recognition setting to all Facebook users. Meanwhile, there's an alternative.

facial recognition GettyImages-1139859542

Update: In September, after this Consumer Reports investigation was published and a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy practices was announced, Facebook announced it was rolling out the Face Recognition setting to all users. This article was originally published on May 20, 2019.

Facebook says that users who are missing the company’s Face Recognition control can opt out of the platform’s use of facial recognition technology by turning off another setting, Tag Suggestions.

According to the company, the two settings both do the same thing.

On Monday, we reported that some Facebook users don’t have access to the company’s Face Recognition privacy setting, which was introduced nearly 18 months ago.

Facial recognition is a powerful tool that is of increasing interest to police departments, airports, retailers, and even some schools for surveillance and security, along with advertisers for targeted marketing. The technology can be used to identify individuals’ races, ages, and genders.

In its online Help Center, Facebook says that facial recognition is used to assist users in tagging photos and videos with the names of other Facebook users, to aid the visually impaired, and to help the company spot fake accounts.

Facebook explains on its site that the technology works by creating a mathematical “template” that corresponds to your features. Facebook describes the Face Recognition setting that it launched in December 2017 as an “on/off switch,” that will delete a user’s template and prevent the company from using the technology on the user’s account.

When the Face Recognition setting was introduced, Facebook said it was replacing the Tag Suggestions setting. However, Consumer Reports recently examined the accounts of 31 Facebook users across the U.S. and found that the Face Recognition setting was missing from eight of the accounts we documented, or just over 25 percent.

The accounts had been created as early as 2006 and as recently as 2017, and belonged to users of a wide range of ages. We looked at whether the users had uploaded photos of themselves, how many Facebook friends they had, and other factors. None of those variables seemed to explain why some users’ settings hadn’t been updated.

Facebook did not respond to requests for information about these settings before publication of Monday’s article, but afterward the company got in touch to say that Tag Suggestions performs the same functions as Face Recognition.

More on Privacy

“Everyone on Facebook can turn face recognition on or off, either through the standalone face recognition setting or through the Tag Suggestions setting,” a Facebook spokesperson said by email. “We are, however, moving toward a single control.”

According to Facebook, both settings delete a person’s facial recognition template and opt the user out of all current and future uses of facial recognition. The company did not say whether this was new functionality for the Tag Suggestions settings.

Multiple pages on Facebook instruct users who wish to delete their facial recognition data to use the Face Recognition setting. These explanations appear on accounts that are missing the setting, as well as those that have it.

The older setting, Tag Suggestions, doesn’t explicitly mention facial recognition or the deletion of data. The text says, “Who sees tag suggestions when photos that look like you are uploaded?” Users can choose either "Friends" or "No one."

Facebook did not respond to questions about why users have different settings, how many people lack the new setting, or when the single control will be made available to all users.

“It’s a good thing that Facebook is giving users a way to turn off facial recognition, because a lot of people have concerns about the technology,” says Katie McInnis, policy council at Consumer Reports. “But consumers shouldn’t have to rely on statements Facebook is making to the press in order to get a clear understanding of how their privacy settings work.”

On Monday, Consumer Reports sent a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission alleging that the situation surrounding Facebook’s Face Recognition setting might constitute an “unfair or deceptive” business practice in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

“Our complaint was based on the information Facebook had provided consumers,” McInnis says. “It’s not right to assume that users will understand how these settings actually work. If Facebook’s disclosures about its settings are insufficient, then the ability for consumers to effectively use this control is undermined.”

The FTC has been conducting a lengthy investigation into whether Facebook has violated a 2011 consent decree over “unfair and deceptive” claims concerning privacy, and Facebook told investors in April that it might be fined $3 billion to $5 billion.

How to Turn Off Facial Recognition

If you have access to the Face Recognition setting, you’ll find it on your account’s settings page. Using a desktop browser, you can navigate there by opening the menu in the top right corner of any Facebook page and clicking Settings. (The steps are similar on a phone browser.) If the control is available to you, you’ll see a link to the Face Recognition setting page about halfway down the list of options on the left-hand side.

To delete the facial recognition template and opt out of any features that use the technology, open the Face Recognition tab. The text reads “Do you want Facebook to be able to recognize you in photos and videos?” Click “Edit” and choose “No.”

If you do have Face Recognition, you won’t have the Tag Suggestions setting, but you will have other controls unrelated to facial recognition under Timeline and Tagging.

If you don’t see the Face Recognition setting, you should have the Tag Suggestions setting. From your account settings page, click “Timeline and Tagging.” (Again, this appears in the left-hand column if you’re using a desktop browser.) Then select “Who sees tag suggestions when photos that look like you are uploaded?” From the drop down menu, select “No one.”

The Facebook mobile app has the same settings, though the steps you’ll take to find them are slightly different.

Open the app, and tap the menu icon with three stacked horizontal lines in the corner of the screen. Then scroll down to Settings & Privacy, near the bottom of the list of options. Tap on Settings to find Face Recognition, if it’s available to you. You’ll also see Timeline and Tagging. (Instead of Settings, you can also navigate to the Face Recognition page by tapping on Privacy Shortcuts.)

Headshot image of Electronics editor Thomas Germain

Thomas Germain

I want to live in a world where consumers take advantage of technology, not the other way around. Access to reliable information is the way to make that happen, and that's why I spend my time chasing it down. When I'm off the clock, you can find me working my way through an ever-growing list of podcasts. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( thomas.germain@consumer.org) or follow me on Twitter ( @ThomasGermain) for my contact info on Signal.