Norway looking at Facebook facial-recognition software

Steven Loeb · August 5, 2012 · Short URL:

Data Protection Agency concerned over possible privacy violations

Facial recognition software always seemed a little creepy to me. I mean, how does Facebook know who I am simply by scanning my face, and what else can they do with that power?

Apparently, I am not the only one with questions into how exactly this works.

The Norwegian Data Protection Agency has begun a probe into the Facebook’s monitoring software last month, fearing that it may be threat to the privacy of its citizens.

When a user uploads new photos onto Facebook, the social network uses software to scan the pictures and matches them to photos of both the user and their friends. The site will suggest possible tags for the people in your photos, in an attempt to simplify and shorten the time it time it takes to tag people.

“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.”

While Norway is not currently in the European Union, it is coordinating with Ireland, a country that is a member of the EU, in the investigation.

In an opinion from March of this year from the EU’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party established that facial recognition software can only be used with a users consent.

“In order to consider the consent valid, adequate information about the data processing must have been given. Users should always be provided with the possibility to withdraw consent in a simple manner. Once consent is withdrawn processing for the purposes of facial recognition should stop immediately,” the opinion said.

Ireland has been conducting its own investigation into whether or not Facebook has been violating EU data-protect rules since 2011.

In December, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), completed a privacy audit which concluded that Facebook was, in fact, complying with EU privacy rules. A follow-up report was expected in July, but has now been pushed back to October. Once the new report is released, Norway will send Facebook a questionnaire about its facial recognition software. 

Norway's other privacy concerns

Since last month, the Norwegian agency has also been investigating other surveillance methods used by Facebook, including one that allows them to monitor private conversations between users.

“It is only now we hear that Facebook uses a tool that can capture and analyze the content of private messages between users, and that they use this in a police-like manner," communications director Ove Skåram said in a statement.

The probe apparently stems from an incident in south Florida last month, in which a man in his 30s attempted to solicit a 13-year-old girl on Facebook. Facebook became aware of the private conversation, and alerted the police. The girl’s computer was seized and the man arrested.

“If Facebook also monitors Norwegian users, it may be a violation of Norwegian privacy laws,” Skåram said.

Facebook was unavailable for comment.

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