August 16, 2012 -
German data privacy authorities have re-opened a probe into Facebook and its use of biometric facial recognition technology to determine whether the company is violating privacy protection laws in Europe.
In June 2011, Hamburg’s office for data protection and freedom of information suspended an investigation into Facebook’s use of facial recognition technology, to give the company time to change its policies. Data protection commissioner Johannes Casper stated at the time that he believed that Facebook had been illegally collating face recognition data about its members, without explicit permission, in order to populate its photo tag suggestion feature.
Casper said in a statement that he re-opened the investigation “in order to find a legally sound solution with regard to the use of biometric data.” Hamburg’s data protection office is critical of the fact that Facebook automatically opts its users into the photo tag feature. The office does acknowledge however that Facebook does allow its members to opt out of photo tag suggestions. In Europe, data protection laws require users to give their explicit consent.
Facebook said in a statement published in the New York Times that it believes it is in full compliance with the law. “We believe that the Photo Tag Suggest feature on Facebook is fully compliant with EU data protection laws. 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.”
If Facebook is found in contradiction of German law, the company can be fined or ordered to make changes to its service. The implications of Germany’s legal action are important since Facebook intends to make integration of biometrics a major component of its service. As BiometricUpdate.com recently reported in June, Facebook acquired Face.com, a Tel Aviv-based technology company, in order to integrate the Face.com facial recognition platform for photos uploaded via Web and mobile applications.
Rawlson King, a commentator at BiometricUpdate.com, has also previously noted that biometric technology will challenge the security and privacy of social networks. He noted: “If sensitive data is ultimately to reside in cyberspace, then privacy protections will need to be established, not unlike those that exist for biometric information maintained by governments.”