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Facebook Under Fire for Facial Recognition Going Too Far

Facebook Under Fire for Facial Recognition Going Too Far
August 30, 2013 1:21PM

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The German government is up in arms over updated terms of service that include informing users about Facebook's automated facial tagging feature that was supposed to be disabled. "It is astonishing to find the facial recognition again in the new proposed privacy policy that Facebook published," said Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection Johannes Caspar.

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As its name suggests, faces are important to Facebook. Tagging of friends and family leads to more connection and sharing, helping the billion-user-strong social network grow even further. But privacy advocates and others worry that Facebook's facial recognition technology and policies have gone too far.

Recent updates now allow the system to instantly recognize users already in the system when other people post their photos and ask the poster if he or she wants to tag that person's name.

'Astonishing' and Not in a Good Way

Not everyone is thrilled about the way the new technology works. Mark Zuckerberg's network had to turn off facial recognition features to satisfy European governments last September, even promising to delete images of European users it had saved.

Now, reports say the German government is up in arms over updated terms of service that include informing users about the facial tagging feature that was supposed to be disabled.

"It is astonishing to find the facial recognition again in the new proposed privacy policy that Facebook published yesterday," Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Johannes Caspar said in an e-mail to tech news media Friday.

"We therefore have directly tried to contact officials from Facebook to find out if there is really a change in their data protection policy or if it is just a mistake of translation."

European Union regulators seem to take matters of public privacy and the Internet far more seriously than do American authorities.

"In theory, EU regulators think about privacy as a fundamental right, while in the U.S. privacy is often protected by laws against deception or harm," said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, which is funded by large technology companies in the U.S., including Facebook.

"But in practice, the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] and state attorneys general are far more aggressive than EU regulators in bringing enforcement actions. And the U.S. class-action system has led to many big-dollar litigations, something unknown in Europe."

Facebook's press relations department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT told us corporations from the United States have long had difficulty navigating European markets.

"The attitudes toward privacy of both consumers and governments within the EU have been clear for years, much to the chagrin of IT vendors, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook," King said.

'Boneheaded Error'?

"In fact, Facebook's Irish subsidiary is wholly responsible for managing the data and interactions of users outside the U.S. and Canada," King said. "That likely makes Facebook's inclusion of facial recognition in its new proposed privacy policy for European users a boneheaded error, a clumsy attempt to run around regulators or an indication that the company wants to press for changes in European privacy regulations."

King said "the first possibility qualifies as little more than a dumb error, but the second and third would constitute deeply misguided courses of action."

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