Facebook faces fresh privacy complaints over facial recognition

Concerns about Facebook's facial recognition technology are not just about the nuances of opt-in versus opt-out or the saving of sensitive biometric data by the company.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said last year that the age of privacy was over, but the German government begs to differ. Facebook is now in hot water over its new facial recognition feature which was launched in the US at the end of last year and rolled out across Europe this June.

The Hamburg data protection authority has ruled that facial recognition violates Germany's privacy laws because it collects biometric data, such as the shape of the face and distance between the eyes. The authority has demanded that Facebook change or disable the feature and delete all data that is has collected so far.

 Facebook faces fresh privacy complaints over facial recognition

Facebook's cavalier attitude to privacy seems to have had no real impact on its popularity.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Facebook has two weeks to respond but if it doesn't make the required changes it faces legal action and fines of up to 300,000. It denies the accusations, saying:"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."

Although released first in the United States, Facebook did not roll out facial recognition in Canada at all. No reason was given, but it may be because Facebook had already come into conflict with Canada's privacy commission in 2009 over the confusing nature of the privacy information it provides to users.

Facebook is also facing complaints in the US. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) is co-ordinating a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. EPIC complained that the service was "unfair and deceptive" and urged the FTC to "require Facebook to suspend the program, pending a full investigation, the establishment of stronger privacy standards, and a requirement that automated identification, based on user photos, require opt-in consent."

These concerns about Facebook's facial recognition technology are not just about the nuances of opt-in versus opt-out or the saving of sensitive biometric data by the company. This week, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that they can discover people's social security numbers by combining the facial recognition results with information on users' Facebook profiles. Social security numbers are issued to all American citizens and residents and have become the de facto national identification number.

Alessandro Acquisti, who lead the research, said:"A person's face is the veritable link between her offline and online identities. The seamless merging of online and offline data that face recognition and social media make possible raises the issue of what privacy will mean in an augmented reality world."

Rebecca Greenfield, writing in The Atlantic Wire, suggests that Facebook may be making moves to become a 'personal identification service'. Using photographs to tie people's distributed web presences together into one overarching identity would be a gold mine for advertisers. And because of Facebook's real name policy, users' online lives would be inextricably tied to their offline identity. Governments would likely also be very interested in such a service.

Similar thinking may also be behind Google+'s real name policy, which is currently causing uproar across the web.Facebook is, of course, no stranger to controversy. Throughout its history, it has shown disregard for its users privacy. Indeed, even before Facebook launched, Mark Zuckerberg faced sanctions from Harvard for hacking into the university's systems and posting students' photos without their consent.

More recently, the Wall Street Journal discoveredthat many of the most popular Facebook apps were "transmitting identifying information - in effect, providing access to people's names and, in some cases, their friends' names - to dozens of advertising and internet tracking companies." Such activity is against Facebook's terms of service and brings into question their ability to protect their users' data.

However, Facebook's cavalier attitude to privacy seems to have had no real impact on its popularity. With 750m users and growing, it shows no signs of waning. Which leaves one with the question: What will it take for users to start taking their own privacy seriously? Until they do, we just have to hope that groups like EPIC and Europe's information commissioners continue to hold Facebook to account.


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