Facebook internal face recognition app could identify employees and friends

The furor around Facebook and its many privacy transgressions seem to have died down a bit recently. You only hear about Facebook in the news lately whenever CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress or when a scandalous revelation makes headlines again. One example of the latter is an internal app that allowed Facebook employees to use facial recognition on their co-workers. And while the app has supposedly been discontinued and never publicly released, the mere fact that Facebook had such an app might already be enough to raise red flags yet again.

Business Insider broke the news, courtesy of the usual anonymous sources, that Facebook once had a facial recognition mobile app between 2015 and 2016, about two years before the social media giant came under fire for its privacy lapses thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Those sources claimed that the app could identify any Facebook users provided there's enough data on those users.

Facebook did acknowledge the existence of the app but made two points clear. The first is that it was an internal app that has been discontinued since 2016 and never released to the public. Second, it was used only for Facebook employees to use on other Facebook employees, with the caveat that employees' friends are also fair game if they had face recognition enabled. Given how Facebook works, that could be a very large set of users.

Privacy advocates might be worried that Facebook has such an app in the first place although, to be fair, it isn't that surprising. The company has long been interested in face recognition technologies, whether in real-time or through photos. It has, in fact, been using face recognition to tag friends in photos you upload to Facebook, something the company did get a lot of flak for just a few years back.

The existence of such a tool in Facebook employees' hands isn't reassuring either, whether or not the app has been discontinued. The social networking giant has not been known for being too careful about its own tools, even or especially the ones that could violate user privacy. That said, there are no reports of abuses done by employees who had access to this tool, or at least none that we know of yet.