After examining parts of Facebook’s source code, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) and a German data protection regulator have both confirmed that the social network has now deleted all facial recognition data for users based in Europe.
CFO World reported the findings, citing an email from Ciara O’Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Irish DPC, who said: “We recently reviewed the source code and execution process used in the deletion process and can confirm that we were satisfied with the processes used by Facebook to delete the templates in line with its commitment.”
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The data deletion has also been confirmed today by the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information – specifically Ulrich Kühn, the head of Hamburg DPC’s technical department. “For the time being, it is settled,” Kühn reportedly said.
Facebook announced last September that it would delete all facial recognition data that it has stored regarding its European users. At the time, the social networking company said it had already turned off the feature for new users in the area, but that it would delete the templates used to identify existing users by October 15.
That decision was forced on them following a long and arduous investigation into Facebook’s various practices after a user group in Austria complained in 2011.
The Irish DPC has been involved specifically because this is where Facebook’s international headquarters are based – making the firm subject to the EU’s data protection laws.
Facebook uses facial recognition technology to help users tag their friends when they upload a set of photos. It was launched in the US back in late 2010, but later released to other countries in June 2011. Once someone has been tagged more than once, that face is then saved by Facebook as a template, and used to identify people in subsequent uploads as tag suggestions.
The feature has faced backlash not only in Europe, but also the United States. After disabling tag suggestions to make some technical improvements, Facebook re-enabled them last week “to help them easily identify a friend in a photo and share that content with them.”
Interestingly, Facebook doesn’t seem to have made any privacy changes following the re-implementation fo the feature in the US. It’s still on by default, and appears to work in the exact same way.
On the one hand, Facebook has stayed true to its word and deleted the facial recognition data, as promised. This will no doubt satisfy the Irish DPC, as well as any remaining users in Europe who were concerned about their data and what Facebook was doing with it.
The larger issue though is that Facebook’s offering is no longer consistent in different regions. It’s one issue to have new features, often in beta, being tested in certain locations first, but the removal of a well-established feature such as Tag Suggestions will no doubt harm the overarching consistency and quality of the service. It’s worth remembering that the company bought Face.com, an Israeli startup specialising in facial recognition technology, in June last year – so clearly the company was planning to develop the feature further.
A spokesperson for Facebook reportedly told CFO World that there are no plans “for the moment” to reintroduce the Tag Suggestion feature in Europe.
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