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October 24, 2011

Germany Puts Pressure on Facebook over Facial Recognition Software Privacy Concerns

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

The German government is putting pressure on Facebook (News - Alert) over its facial recognition application and related privacy concerns.

The U.S.-based social media company was given a deadline of November 7 to ensure that its facial recognition software meets the standards set by German and European Union privacy laws, according to the AFP News Service.

If Facebook fails to comply, attorneys would likely bring a legal move in court, the AFP said. Johannes Caspar, a German lawyer, told the AFP, “We have had extended negotiations with Facebook and have clearly stressed our position…. If our demands are not met, we will be obliged to take the legal path.”

The software lets users come up with identities of individuals via photos found online, the AFP said. Germany alleges Facebook collected the data “without the explicit consent of Facebook users,” the AFP added.

In recent months, facial recognition applications led to concerns after several Carnegie Mellon researchers were able to ID some one-third of the subjects they tested, using a photo and facial-recognition technology from Google (News - Alert), according to a report from TMCnet.

One of lead researchers, Alessandro Acquisti, said that 27 percent of the time, using data from the subjects’ Facebook profiles, they could correctly identify the first five digits of the subject’s Social Security numbers, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal, TMCnet said.

“Two experiments demonstrated the ability of identifying strangers online (on a dating site where individuals protect their identities by using pseudonyms) and offline (in a public space), based on photos made publicly available on a social network site,” Acquisti wrote on his website. “A third … experiment illustrated the ability of inferring strangers' personal or sensitive information (their interests and Social Security numbers) from their faces, by combining face recognition, data mining algorithms, and statistical re-identification techniques.”

They also came up with a mobile phone app “to recognize and then predict someone's sensitive personal data directly from their face in real time,” Acquisti said.

In addition, the researchers took images of college students using a webcam and compared the photos to images from Facebook profiles, TMCnet said. The researchers were able to re-identify about one third of the students, according to TMCnet.

In the past, Germany – as well as other nations – took action against Google for issues generated by the Google Street View network.

Ed Silverstein is a TMCnet contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell
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