A German agency has sent Facebook a request to disable the facial recognition feature, and to delete any data that the software had collected.
Johannes Caspar, of Hamburg's Data Protection Authority (DPA), made the request in a letter to Facebook on Tuesday, and gave the social ntworking company two weeks to respond or face a potential fine of up to €300,000 (approximately $427,000).
Caspar observed that Facebook’s database (approximately 450 million people tagged in approximately 75 billion photos) amounts to the world’s largest biometric repository.
In Caspar’s view, both German and EU privacy and data collection legislation (such as the EU’s Data Protection Directive of 1995) is opposed to the current ‘opt-out’ status of the “suggested automatic tagging” feature in which Facebook assumes its users’ permission unless specifically told otherwise. An opt-out will not remove previously existing tags on photos, even if a user becomes aware of the tagging and decides to opt out.
Much of the controversy surrounding Facebook’s facial recognition comes from the fact that it is turned on by default. Initially announced at the end of 2010, the well-known security group Sophos was among the first to publicize the fact that Facebook had quietly ‘gone live’ with the software, with none of the usual fanfare that surrounds major feature introductions. A Facebook spokesman even admitted, “we should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them."
Although various critics raised concerns about Facebook’s facial recognition feature when it was first revealed, this is only the second official protest. A Connecticut district attorney complaint led to the company promising to post more information on the Facebook homepage concerning opting out of suggested automatic tagging, but no change in the status of the feature itself. The EU's Article 29 Data Protection Working Party is investigating possible legal issues, as is an Irish government agency.
Facebook is denying that there is any question of legal issues. “We will consider the points the Hamburg Data Protection Authority have made about the photo tag suggest feature,” a Facebook spokesman told the New York Times, “but firmly reject any claim that we are not meeting our obligations under European Union data protection law.”
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