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UK watchdog looking into Facebook face-tech row

Matter for national authorities, says Brussels

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Blighty's data regulator the Information Commissioners Office is talking to Facebook about the "privacy implications" of its facial recognition technology, The Register has learned.

However, despite widespread reporting based on a Bloomberg story that suggests that European watchdogs are probing the company over this issue, no such investigation by the EU's executive body is currently underway.

"It is misleading to say that the European Commission is investigating the issue," a Brussels spokeswoman told El Reg.

"EU data protection rules establish criteria for processing personal details and transparency requirements about the use of such data. But it is for the national authorities in member states to monitor and enforce them.

"On the other hand, new technologies bring new challenges all the time and that is why the European Commission is currently reviewing the data protection rules."

We asked the ICO if it was planning to investigate Facebook's decision to quietly slot its facial recognition technology into its network without first informing its users.

"As with any new technology, we would expect Facebook to be upfront about how people's personal information is being used," said an ICO spokesman.

"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 watchdog has yet to declare an outright investigation, however, preferring instead to tell us that talks are taking place.

Facebook surprised many privacy advocates earlier this week when it quietly rolled out its facial recognition technology to countries outside of the US, by switching the feature on by default without telling its users first.

The tech, which is set as "opt out" rather than "opt in", works by scanning newly uploaded pics and then identifying faces from previously tagged photos already stored in Mark Zuckerberg's closed-off network.

Many reports pointed out what was essentially Facebook's latest privacy gaffe, after Graham Cluley gave the world's largest social networking site the red flag. The company openly admitted to The Reg and other organs that it "could have been more clear" about the rollout.

That's an after-the-fact statement that may see Facebook marked with yet another privacy scar. ®

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