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Facebook to mothball facial recognition in EU

Social networking giant seeks agreement with regulators, but privacy groups remain defiant.

Face scan

Privacy campaigners have welcomed the news that Facebook is to delete the template images it stores of its EU users, following a request by the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

The social networking giant previously stored images of all its members, which are used by facial recognition algorithms to power the 'Tag Suggest' tool.

When a user uploaded a picture to the site, the tool would then suggest tags based on the facial features, dimensions and ratios of the people in the image.

The challenge of securing consent from both the person uploading the photo and the people in the photo may be practically impossible.

The feature had caused considerable concerns regarding privacy at both a legislative and campaigning level.

In April, the EU's privacy watchdog, the Article 29 Working Party, said the tool broke European privacy regulations.

It explained that Facebook-like networks needed to obtain users' express permission before suggesting to the uploader that these people feature in the photos being uploaded to the site.

The Irish data protection commissioner subsequently requested that Facebook Ireland, which is responsible for all users outside the USA and Canada, turn off the Tag Suggest tool for EU users. Facebook has said it will comply by 15 October.

A spokesman for Facebook told IT Pro: "Facebook hopes to turn the feature back on within the EU once we have come to a best practice agreement with our regulators on how to notify and educate people using the tool."

However Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, sounded a note of caution.

"Given the challenge of securing consent from both the person uploading the photo and the people in the photo being scanned, it may be practically impossible to secure an adequate level of consent," Pickles told IT Pro.

"What must not happen is the consent requirement be watered down because it proves difficult," Pickles concluded.

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