German state to sue Facebook over facial recognition feature

German authorities are looking to sue Facebook over its use of facial recognition technology. The argument is over opt-in versus opt-out. Facebook insists the latter is compliant with the law.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

Johannes Caspar, data protection commissioner for the German state of Hamburg, today declared he is preparing legal action against Facebook and will soon fine the company over its use of biometric facial recognition technology. He said "further negotiations are pointless" because the company had ignored a deadline he set for it to remove the feature. German authorities could fine Facebook up to €300,000 ($420,000).

For its part, Facebook continues to reject Caspar's position, saying the feature satisfies German law because it is easy to disable. This may be true, but one of the founding principles of German data protection law is that users must opt-in, not merely have the option to opt-out, before data can be collected about them.

"This requires storing a comprehensive database of the biometric features of all users," the organization wrote in a German-language statement published on its website, according to a translation by Deutsche Welle. "Facebook has introduced this feature in Europe, without informing the user and without obtaining the required consent. Unequivocal consent of the parties is required by both European and national data protection law."

"We believe that any legal action is completely unnecessary," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "[The] tag suggest feature on Facebook is fully compliant with EU data protection laws."

When you upload new photos, Facebook uses software similar to that found in many photo editing tools to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. Similar photos are grouped together and, whenever possible, Facebook suggests the name(s) your friend(s) in the photos. In other words, the square that magically finds faces in a photo now suggests names of your Facebook friends to streamline the tagging process, especially when the same friends are in multiple uploaded photos. Facebook rolled out Tag Suggestions across the US in December 2010, but only in June 2011 did it start pushing it out to many other countries, including Germany.

European Union data-protection regulators started looking into the feature almost immediately after Facebook began rolling it out worldwide. A month later, Germany threatened Facebook with legal action saying the technology violates the country's privacy and data protection laws. Facebook has repeatedly come under fire in Germany, where privacy is a particularly sensitive issue for historical reasons.

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