Facebook picked one hell of a time to turn facial recognition back on in Europe

Rolling out "automated facial recognition in the U.K. makes a total mockery of their promises to respect users’ privacy.”
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Facebook said Wednesday it will switch back on its controversial facial recognition feature in Europe — a move denounced by privacy activists as a “mockery” of the company’s promise to protect user data.

The move is part of a wider update to the platform’s privacy policy designed to ensure Facebook is compliant with Europe’s new data protection regulations, which come into force on May 25.

Facial recognition allows Facebook to scan photos and videos uploaded by users so that friends can tag them without consent. It's been in use around the world for several years, but the company deactivated it in Europe in 2012 after protests and on advice of regulators.


Facebook says users in the EU will now have to opt in to the service before the network can scan images, but privacy campaigners aren't convinced.

“Facebook’s plan to roll out automated facial recognition in the U.K. makes a total mockery of their promises to respect users’ privacy,” Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, told VICE News.

Starting this week, users in Europe will be greeted at log-in with a message offering two choices. They can click a single button to “accept and continue” if they want to turn facial recognition on. But turning it off is not as easy. Users will have to click a “manage data settings” button and navigate through their privacy settings before deactivating the software.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook should be focusing on proving “it has learned how to respect the law, not to prove it can take its surveillance capabilities to new depths,” Carlo said, adding that the decision was a “woefully misguided and dangerous plan.”

While privacy groups have warned that facial recognition technology will allow Facebook to collect even more data, the company claims it will ”help protect your privacy” because it will detect “when others might be attempting to use your image as their profile picture.”

But it is not guaranteed that Facebook will be allowed to push forward with its plan.

Ireland’s data protection commissioner Helen Dixon told the BBC, “there are a number of outstanding issues on which we await further responses from Facebook.”


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“In particular, the Irish DPC is querying the technology around facial recognition and whether Facebook needs to scan all faces — i.e. those without consent as well — to use the facial recognition technology,” Dixon said.

Facebook is coming off a tough couple of weeks with the Cambridge Analytica scandal prompting a wider debate about the level of data Facebook holds on the more than 2 billion regular users.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced questioning on Capitol Hill, yet has so far refused to cross the Atlantic to face lawmakers in Europe, turning down a request from MPs in London to address the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He has also failed to responded to a renewed call by EU Commissioner Věra Jourová to answer questions in the European Parliament.

Cover image: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)