Germany: Facebook facial recognition feature violates privacy laws

Germany is threatening Facebook with legal action and a fine of €300,000 ($420,000) over its biometric facial recognition technology.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

Germany is threatening Facebook with legal action over its biometric facial recognition technology, which allegedly violates the country's privacy and data protection laws. European Union data-protection regulators started looking into the feature almost immediately after Facebook began rolling it out worldwide.

"We have repeatedly asked Facebook to shut down the facial recognition function and to delete the previously stored data," Johannes Caspar, the data protection commissioner for the state of Hamburg, said in a two-page German-language statement released this week. Caspar's office is giving Facebook two more weeks to draft a response before pursuing possible legal action against the company. German authorities could fine Facebook up to €300,000 ($420,000).

"We don't think that this kind of technology conforms with EU data protection law," Caspar told Deutsche Welle. "A legal assessment by our office came to the conclusion that [Facebook's] face recognition violates European and German law because Facebook is providing its users with contradictory and misleading information. A normal user doesn't know how to delete the biometric data. And besides, we have demanded that biometric data be stored with the subject's express consent. At first [any company] has to ask if the user wants their data stored or not. Facebook just gives them the possibly to opt-out. If you don't opt-out, you're not consenting."

"We will consider the points the Hamburg Data Protection Authority have made about the photo tag suggest feature but firmly reject any claim that we are not meeting our obligations under European Union data protection law," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "We have also found that people like the convenience of our photo tag suggest feature which makes it easier and safer for them to manage their online identities."

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. For more information about Tag Suggestions, including on how to turn them off, check out my previous article: Facebook starts rolling out facial recognition feature worldwide.

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