Regulators probe Facebook’s facial recognition

A number of European privacy regulators are investigating Facebook’s facial recognition feature amid mounting concern about the technology, which attempts to identify people in photos uploaded to the website.

The social networking site has come under fire from the German, UK and Irish authorities for introducing the feature without permission from users.

“Again Facebook has changed its Privacy Declaration without the users’ consent. I do not think that Facebook’s action does conform to European and German data protection law,” said Peter Schaar, the German commissioner for data protection.

“As with any new technology, we would expect Facebook to be up front about how people’s personal information is being used,” said the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

“The privacy issues that this new software might raise are obvious, and users should be given as much information as possible to give them the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether they wish to use it.” the office said. “We are speaking to Facebook about the privacy implications of this technology,” it added.

The issue will be raised in a meeting of the European privacy regulators who form the Article 29 Working Party, an advisory group to the European Commission.

In the US, a number of privacy groups have been asked to back a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in the US being organised by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, which also led a 2009 protest against the company, according to people contacted about the matter.

Facebook said that it was in talks with European regulators but said that it did not believe the facial recognition feature posed privacy concerns.

“We have heard the comments from some regulators about this product feature, and we are providing them with additional information which we are confident will satisfy any concerns they will have,” Facebook said.

After protests started this week, Facebook hurried to update an earlier blog post to disclose the international roll-out of the feature and to admit it should have handled the process differently.

“We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them,” Facebook said in a statement on Tuesday.

The feature tries to match the faces in photos that users upload to their Facebook albums with the names of their friends, then prompts them to “tag” the pictures with the names.

The automated suggestions are designed to make it easier for users who find it a chore to tag their friends in every picture, according to Facebook.

Facebook has added an option that lets users choose not to use the feature, though it did not alert them when the feature took effect or when the option was added.

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, one of the groups contacted about backing the EPIC complaint, said that Facebook should not have included users automatically, but should have given them an “opt-in” that let them first decide if they wanted the feature.