More then a year after Facebook came under fire by an Austrian group and Irish and EU officials began to investigate possible privacy violations, Facebook announced it would stop using its facial recognition tool in Europe.
German News organization Deutsche Welle (DW) is reporting that Facebook made the announcement on Friday. The announcement said the default software prompting users to "tag" photographs had been turned off for users inside the EU.
Facebook told PCMag: "As our regulator in Europe, the Irish Office of the Data Protection Commissioner is constantly working with us to ensure that we keep improving on the high standards of control that we have built into our existing tools."
The question regarding the legality of Facebook's facial recognition tool surfaced in August 2011 when data privacy regulators in Europe said it violated EU regulations. German data protection officials then requested that Facebook disable the tool and delete any previously stored data. PCMag says German officials reopened their investigation earlier in September of this year when the data protection commissioner in Hamburg could not come to an agreement with Facebook officials.
In December 2011, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) conducted an audit to see if Facebook was complying with Irish and EU privacy protection law. Because Facebook's European office is based in Ireland, the company falls under Irish jurisdiction and must be in compliance with all Irish laws.
Facebook introduced the facial recognition tool as a way to encourage people to share photographs more widely by "tagging" them with the names of friends. The software helped users tag other people by automatically identifying them. It essentially allowed the company to create a biometric database of its members. The facial recognition software was developed by Face.com, an Israeli company, which Facebook acquired in June.
This decision by DPC, and Facebook's agreement to switch off the tool, could have have far reaching consequences regarding how facial recognition technology is used by social media, as well as by security cameras installed in public spaces. Chris Hoofnagle, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in online privacy, told the New York Times: “This is a big deal.
The development of these tools in the private sector directly affects civil liberties. The ultimate application is going to be — can we apply these patterns in video surveillance to automatically identify people for security purposes and maybe for marketing purposes as well?”
The Boston Globe reports that Facebook temporarily deactivated the ‘‘tag suggestion’’ for all Facebook users several months ago. On Friday the company said the reason was to ‘‘make improvements to the tool’s efficiency’’ but did not say when the feature would be restored in the U.S or countries outside of the EU. Facebook declined to say under what circumstances the ‘‘tag suggestions’’ would be back online.