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Windows Photos app did facial recognition without user consent

The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update was released late in 2017. It brought major updates like search photos using AI:

With the help of AI, we’ve also introduced an easy way to search by person, place, or thing. Simply click on the search bar and images of people* from your collection appear, making it easy to click on the person you’re looking for. You’ll also see places and things that are already in your collection. If you know what you’re looking for, a photo from the playground, a video captured at Disneyland, or last year’s picture with Santa, just type those things into the search box and the automatically tagged photos will come up in your search. That’s right, the best part is, it’s all done for you through automatic intelligent tagging, no work needed on your end.

This quote comes from the Windows Blog post AI in Photos makes it easy to find and create the perfect holiday photo or video

What was not told to users was that the Fall Creators Update turned facial recognition on by default. No consent or permission was asked. The Photos app analyzed all photos and videos in the Pictures folder on the computer. If a user was logged onto OneDrive, the images and videos in its Photos folder were also analyzed. Pictures featuring people were put in groups, so that clicking a photo of a person opened all photos of that same person.

This is of course problematic for multiple reasons. Quietly, Microsoft has changed its default settings in the Photos app so that users must now explicitly turn on facial recognition to accept (and consent to) its use. Funnily enough, when I tried to find more information about this change — which you could call “retroactively requesting user consent” — I found almost nothing.

In any case, with version 1903 facial recognition is disabled by default. If you want to use it, you can find it in the Settings for the Photos app (see featured image at the head of this post).

I am happy this has now been changed, but at the same time somewhat worried that things started out wrong-footed. To begin with 1709 introduced changes that clearly violated user privacy rights — not to mention the rights of friends and family in users’ photos. Worse still, all this occurred without mentioning privacy issues to users, or obtaining their consent. It will be interesting to see if this revelation leads to legal action, especially in the EU where privacy rights are highly regarded and tightly regulated. Stay tuned. I’ll be keeping my eye on this topic (pun intended).


Author: Kari Finn

A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.

One Response “Windows Photos app did facial recognition without user consent”

  1. CountMike
    July 18, 2019 at 09:27

    I don’t keep anything in in system assigned folders or even system drive, all is in other disks

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