Germany Is Freaking Out About Facebook’s Facial Recognition Feature
Last year, when Facebook first started rolling out its facial recognition-based photo-tagging feature in Europe, our friends across the Atlantic flipped out. Angry words were said. Investigations were launched. Facebook abstention was threatened.
This all seemed to be somewhat resolved after Ireland’s Data Protection Agency launched a big investigation into the social networking company — because its European headquarters are in Dublin — and determined that, under E.U. law, Facebook could make the biometric face-prints of its members, but that it had to give users more prominent notice and the chance to opt out. Facebook suspended its “Tag Suggest” and face-printing of all European users who joined after July 1st until it comes up with a notification process that pleases the Irish.
All settled, right? Nein, says Germany. Hamburg data protection commissioner Johannes Caspar disagrees with Ireland. He argues that under E.U. law, Facebook doesn’t have a right to break out its facial recog software on users and put their face-prints on file without their explicit opt-in consent. (For what it’s worth, States-side, Sen. Al Franken has suggested the same thing. Norway is also not completely down with it.) The New York Times reports that Caspar will make “a formal request” to Facebook to “destroy its photographic database of faces collected in Germany and revise its Web site to obtain the explicit consent of members before it creates a digital file based on the biometric data of their faces.”
Facebook doesn’t seem to be backing down.
“We believe that the photo tag suggest feature on Facebook is fully compliant with EU data protection laws,” Facebook said in a 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.”
If the formal request doesn’t work, reports the New York Times, Caspar could hit Facebook with a hefty $31,000 fine… yeah, hefty…. or take the Big Blue Face-scanning Giant to court, in hopes of getting a judicial order compelling Facebook to do as it says.
Facebook could well end up doing with “Tag Suggest” what Google has had to do with Street View, configuring it to match the privacy expectations of a given country. There was a time, for example, when Google allowed German users to blur their homes out on Google Street View. But the demands became laborious enough that Google eventually abandoned Street View all together in Germany.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., there are already Facebook apps on the market that are tapping into facial recognition to let people get in-person, in-store deals. (Don’t tell Germany.)