German officials reopen inquiry into Facebook facial recognition


SAN FRANCISCO -- A German data protection official has reopened an investigation into Facebook’s facial recognition technology.

At issue: The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection said that Facebook was saving images of users’ faces in a database without their explicit consent in violation of European privacy laws.

Johannes Caspar said Facebook would have to delete all of the data unless it obtained approval from all users.


Facebook says it notifies European users of the data collection.

Caspar suspended his inquiry in June but reopened it after meeting with Facebook repeatedly in a quest to get the social networking giant to change its policy. He told the New York Times that Facebook acknowledged it was collecting users’ biometric data but maintained that the practice was legal in Ireland, Facebook’s European headquarters.

Facebook users have to opt out of -- not into -- allowing the company to collect facial-recognition data. That’s a hot-button issue in Europe, where data protection laws require users to give their consent. Facial recognition software prompts users to “tag” friends in photos uploaded to the service.

Irish regulators advised Facebook last year that it could notify users that it was collecting biometric data, but did not have to seek their consent. But in March, the European Union’s advisory panel on privacy found that collecting biometric data without consent violated European law. Irish regulators reopened their investigation after the decision from the Article 29 Working Party.

“We believe that the photo tag suggest feature on Facebook is fully compliant with EU data protection laws,” Facebook said in an emailed statement. “During our continuous dialogue with our supervisory authority in Europe, the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, we agreed to develop a best practice solution to notify people on Facebook about photo tag suggest.”

Gary T. Davis, Ireland’s deputy data commissioner, said Caspar has kept his agency informed and that he continues to negotiate with Facebook to “identify options towards a satisfactory outcome.”

“We remain hopeful that they will be concluded satisfactorily shortly,” Davis said.

U.S. privacy watchdogs urged Caspar to press his case.

“Facebook’s practices of collecting and using the facial characteristics of their users without opt-in permission should be challenged, as the German privacy authority has done,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Why should Facebook users be forced to provide the social network with free rein over their most personal information, their physical being?”



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