This week, German data protection officials have reopened an investigation against Facebook and its facial recognition technology. The case was revisited after officials in Germany say the social network failed to comply with the requested changes.
The original year-long case had been closed in June 2012, and now authorities are looking to reopen, according to the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.
When Facebook initially launched facial recognition technology on the network's platform last year with its Facebook's Photo Tag Suggest feature, it caused controversy because the feature was an opt-out one, rather than opt-in , meaning users had to a) know it was there, as the feature was not widely publicized to users and b) users had to take the time to be sure to turn the feature off if it was not desired.
Facebook is allegedly no longer collecting data on new photos in these regions, however, there is still the older data to consider.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the primary issue is Facebook purportedly has saved all the images it previously collected of its users in a database which violates European privacy laws. Officials said in order for the network to comply with this law, all data on users who did not consent to this collection would have to be deleted. Facebook has indicated the company has notified European users of this data collection.
As it stands, German officials say, according to the New York Times, the compilation of user images is an illegal database.
The issue has “grave implications" in regards to personal information on users, Johannes Caspar, a commissioner in Hamburg, told the NYT. “We have met repeatedly with Facebook but have not been able to get their cooperation on this issue, which has grave implications for personal data."
The privacy officials want Facebook to delete the database of user photos. The problem is the company's European headquarters is located in Ireland, where the collecting of photos in this form is legal.
“We believe that the photo tag suggest feature on Facebook is fully compliant with E.U. data protection laws,” a Facebook statement said. “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.”
Reportedly, Irish officials "appeared to dispute that view" and continue in talks with Facebook and are conducting a second audit, reported NYT.
U.S. privacy advocates are hoping Germany continues to push this issue.
"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, reported the Los Angeles Times. "Why should Facebook users be forced to provide the social network with free rein over their most personal information, their physical being?"
If Germany goes ahead and fines the social network giant, it would amount to about $31,000 (25,000 euros) in fines and a potential lawsuit if Facebook refuses to destroy the data and amend its opt-out collection practices, which some experts say could be tricky, due to jurisdiction.
"Germany is much stricter about data protection, and the Irish aren't enforcing anything, so this is kind of a case of the Germans looking for ways to have jurisdiction over some of these policies," Max Schrems, founder of the blog Europe vs. Facebook, told TechNewsWorld.