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Data protection watchdogs to probe Facebook about its use of facial recognition technology

Facebook will be asked to explain whether it considered the impact new technology that recognises faces in photos would have on users' privacy before introducing the feature, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said.09 Jun 2011

A spokesman for the ICO, the UK's data protection regulator, told OUT-LAW that it could be weeks before the ICO is able to form a judgement on Facebook's use of the technology.

"We will be asking Facebook whether consideration was given to users' privacy before it introduced the feature," ICO spokesman Greg Jones told OUT-LAW. "Until we hear back from them we cannot speculate as to when we will know if we are satisfied by what they have to say."

Facebook is using facial recognition technology automatically to suggest the names of people featured in photos uploaded by users. The company launched the feature last year for users in the US and revealed on Tuesday that it is now available to users in most countries.

In an official statement the ICO said it expects organisations to tell users how they use personal information stored about them.

“As with any new technology, we would expect Facebook to be up front about how people’s personal information is being used," the ICO said in an email statement.

"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. We are speaking to Facebook about the privacy implications of this technology,” the ICO said.

The ICO will be joined in its study of Facebook's new feature by European data protection watchdogs, media reports said. The Article 29 Working Party, which includes representation from the ICO, is a committee made of up national data protection regulators from the 27 EU member states.

 “Tags of people on pictures should only happen based on people’s prior consent and it can’t be activated by default,” said Gérard Lommel, a Luxembourg member of the Working Party said, according to a report in the New York Times.

Automatic tagging suggestions “can bear a lot of risks for users” and the European data protection officials will “clarify to Facebook that this can’t happen like this,” Lommel said, according to the report.

On Tuesday Facebook announced that it had started to introduce the feature for users. By not seeking prior consent from users to adopt the technology, Facebook drew criticism from privacy campaigners and some users.

The social networking site published details of how users could change their privacy settings in order to prevent it suggesting their name to users who upload photos that they feature in, but the measure did not go far enough for some and the company has now admitted it had not been clear about when and how it would introduce the new feature.

"When we announced this feature last December, we explained that we would test it, listen to feedback and iterate before rolling it out more broadly," said a Facebook spokeswoman according to a report on The Register.

"We should have been more clear with people during the roll-out process when this became available to them. Tag Suggestions are now available in most countries and we'll post further updates to our blog over time," the spokeswoman said, according to the report.

Facebook's settings are too complicated and the company should not automatically introduce new features that affect users' privacy, online security expert Graham Cluley said.

"Once again, Facebook seems to be sharing personal information by default," said Cluley. "Many people feel distinctly uncomfortable about a site like Facebook learning what they look like, and using that information without their permission," Cluley said in a blog.

"Most Facebook users still don't know how to set their privacy options safely, finding the whole system confusing. It's even harder though to keep control when Facebook changes the settings without your knowledge," Cluley said. "The onus should not be on Facebook users having to 'opt-out' of the facial recognition feature, but instead on users having to 'opt-in'. Yet again, it feels like Facebook is eroding the online privacy of its users by stealth," Cluley said.

It is "easy" for users to change their privacy settings and Facebook has received few complaints about its facial recognition feature, a spokesman said, according to a report by Mercury News.

"This data, and the fact that we've had almost no user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful," a Facebook spokesman said, according to the Mercury News report.

In the US, privacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is expected to make a complaint about Facebook's use of facial recognition technology to the Federal Trade Commission, a US body set up to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive business practices, the report said.

Technology law news is also available from Bootlaw, a free resource for technology start-ups, with regular events hosted by Pinsent Masons.