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Facebook facial recognition probed by Norwegian Data Protection Authority

The Norwegian Data Protection Authority is probing Facebook with regard to its facial recognition tool that automatically suggests people’s names to tag in pictures. Facebook began worldwide rollout of its Tag Suggestion feature in June 2011 and has faced a major backlash from privacy groups in Europe ever since.


Frankly, when it comes to privacy, Europeans are a lot “smarter” than Americans. Americans, of the “lower 99%,” have been busy just trying to survive for the last 30 years. Europeans had “in-your-face” confrontations with the Nazis in the 20th Century, and some of them had the East German “surveillance state” as a neighbor. In Western Europe, only the UK seems not to have learned from the experience.

I wrote about facial recognition systems in an Independence Day blog entry in 2010 entitled “Freedom, in a Technical Age.” Basically, my questions boil down to these. It takes a lot of money to integrate and implement facial recognition features into a software system. I did not request “the enhancement.” Who did? Who paid for it? Why? Facebook constructs very elaborate social graphs concerning the relationships among people, their likes and dislikes, and their interests, all of which are of great interest to businesses and governments, alike. Oh, I don’t tag photos, as a rule, but that does not matter much, because my friends and members of my family, DO (as I described in the July 4, 2010 entry).

CNET says:

When you upload new photos, Facebook uses software similar to that found in many photo editing tools to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. Similar photos are grouped together and, whenever possible, Facebook suggests the names of your friends in the photos. In other words, the square that magically finds faces in a photo also suggests names of your Facebook friends to streamline the tagging process, which can be especially useful when you have the same friends in multiple uploaded shots.

“It’s a very powerful tool Facebook has and it’s not yet clear how it all really works,” Bjorn Erik Thon, Norway’s data protection commissioner, told Bloomberg. “They have pictures of hundreds of millions of people. What material Facebook has in its databases is something we need to discuss with them.”

Facebook maintains that the tag-suggesting feature is compliant with law in the European Union (Norway is NOT in the European Union) and says that it has properly informed users :-) about the technology, which they can turn off if they choose. Frankly, even in the United States, I do not feet that I have been properly informed about the technology, since the features that I would want to know about, Facebook would likely view as confidential business information.

“We have given comprehensive notice and education to our users about tag suggest, and we provide very simple tools for people to opt out if they do not want to use this feature,” a Facebook representative said in a statement. “We stop processing facial recognition data when someone chooses to opt out.”

Facebook may STOP PROCESSING facial recognition data when someone chooses to opt out, but I seriously DOUBT that the information is deleted from their databases. In a time when a person can be identified by facial recognition after only NINE photos of them are available, by the time someone opts out, it is probably too late. My experience in high tech is that (pretty much) the only way that information is deleted from a database is ACCIDENTALLY! 😉

The Norwegian investigation has thus been referred to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC). Facebook has more than 955 million monthly active users, but its U.S. headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., is not responsible for the majority of them. Facebook’s international headquarters is in Dublin, meaning all users outside the U.S. and Canada are subject to Irish and European data protection laws. Facebook chose Dublin for the tax incentives: businesses are charged approximately 2 percent tax in Dublin compared with 35 percent tax in the U.S.

In December, the ODPC completed a three-month privacy audit of Facebook’s activities. (I noticed from the ODPC site that their pages have the extension “.htm” rather than “.html”. If they are running Windows, how much can they really know about security and privacy, anyway! :-) ) Another review was scheduled for July 2012 but was pushed out to October 2012. The Norwegian Data Protection Authority plans to send a facial recognition questionnaire to Facebook once it has seen the Irish report.

-Bill at

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