US social media giant Facebook is deleting facial recognition data collected from European users and plans to terminate the feature there soon. Meanwhile, the software is gaining traction in the US, attracting apps that now recognize faces in public.
When users “tag” a friend in a photo uploaded to Facebook, the service stores and remembers facial features that identify that unique individual. Facebook is then able to suggest “tags” on newly uploaded photos to match pictures with names.
Since 2011, the Ireland-based Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) has led an investigation into Facebook to see if the social media giant complied with European privacy laws. The DPC initially responded to complaints by a user group in Austria. Facebook’s European headquarters are located in Ireland, making the DPC the ideal leader in the investigation. The commissioner recommended Facebook implement a number of changes throughout the European Union, including suspending its facial recognition tool.
The DPC said the social media company has so far made most of the improvements it requested, providing greater transparency for users in how their data is handled, control over settings, more clarity on the retention periods for deleting data and greater ease for users to access their personal data.
Facebook has now also agreed to switch off its facial recognition tool, which many say is a threat to individual privacy.
“This is a big deal,” University of California law professor told the New York Times. “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?”
Facebook said in a statement that it will do what it must to be in agreement with European data protection laws, but the company plans to bring facial recognition software back to the European market once it figures out how to make it comply with European privacy laws.
“It’s worth us reiterating that once we have an agreed on approach on the best way to notify and educate users with the DPC, we hope to bring back this useful tool,” a Facebook spokesperson told Tech Crunch.
About 25 percent of Facebook users are European and one third of the company’s advertising revenue comes from Europe, making it a crucial market for the company.
Ireland’s privacy regulator Billy Hawkers said in a press release that Facebook was “sending a clear signal of its wish to demonstrate its commitment to best practices in data protection compliance.”
On Oct. 15, the tool will be switched off for users in Europe. It is already unavailable to new users on the continent.
But so far, the company has not made any promises about switching off the facial recognition tool in the US. At a hearing in July, Sen. Al Franken called Facebook the “world’s largest privately held database of face print – without the explicit consent of its users.”
Facebook enabled the facial recognition feature in June 2011 without announcing the change and opting in all users.
“I believe that we have a fundamental right to privacy, and that means people should have the ability to choose whether or not they’ll be enrolled in a commercial facial recognition database,” Franken said. “I encourage Facebook to provide the same privacy protections to its American users as it does its foreign ones.”
But rather than protecting privacy for Americans, Facebook may allow more features that collect data from Americans.
An Atlanta company, Redpepper, is currently developing an application that would build on the facial recognition software and allow Facebook users to be identified by cameras installed in stores and restaurants. Users with the application can then be tracked in the “real world,” a blog post by the company said.
“They are pushing the edges of what privacy rules may allow, just as an aggressive driver might with parking rules,” Brian Wieser, an analyst at the Pivotal Research Group, told the Times. “You don’t know you’ve broken a law until someone says you’ve broken a law.”