Facebook Face Recognition Violates Law, Gernab Federal State Watchdog Says

Facebook Inc.’s facial-recognition feature violates European and German data protection law and the biggest social network should delete data derived from the function, a German state watchdog said.

The software evaluates faces on uploaded photos according to physical features and saves them, creating what may be “the world’s largest database of biometric features,” Hamburg’s agency for data protection and information security said in a statement on its website yesterday. Facebook may be fined if it refuses to comply with the demands, Sebastian Wirth, who oversees technology companies for the watchdog, said via phone.

Public concern over data privacy prompted two other U.S. technology companies, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Google Inc. (GOOG), to ask people in Germany whether they objected to having pictures of their houses taken and displayed online. Facebook users should be prompted to “unambiguously” agree before their data can be saved via the facial-recognition function, the agency said.

“Automatic facial recognition is a severe intrusion into the informational self-determination of the individual,” Johannes Caspar, who runs the agency, said in the statement. “Even a company that operates globally must respect that.”

The company is “100 percent certain” that the feature doesn’t violate European law and will consider the demands, said a Facebook spokesman, who declined to be identified, citing company policy. The company had positive feedback and “hardly any complaints” from users about the function, he said.

Tagging

Facebook, based in Palo Alto, California, currently has the feature switched on by default and its opt-out setting isn’t easy enough to access, according to the statement from the Hamburg agency. The platform’s users have uploaded more than 75 billion photos and “tagged,” or labeled, 450 million persons in them, the agency said.

Germans who don’t want to have their houses added to Microsoft’s Bing Maps Streetside service may hand in their objections by September. Google, which had to allow the same procedure for its Street View offering, is under scrutiny in the U.S. and other countries for not disclosing that it was capturing wireless data while taking the photos.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cornelius Rahn in Frankfurt at crahn2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kenneth Wong in Berlin at kwong11@bloomberg.net

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