Facebook deleted all EU facial recognition data, regulators confirm

Both the Irish data protection commissioner and a German regulator confirmed Facebook deleted the data

Facebook has deleted all European facial recognition data, the Irish data protection commissioner and a German data protection regulator confirmed independently Thursday after reviewing parts of the social network's source code.

"We recently reviewed the source code and execution process used in the deletion process and can confirm that we were satisfied with the processes used by Facebook to delete the templates in line with its commitment," said Ciara O'Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), in an email. Facebook's international headquarters is in Ireland, making the company subject to Irish, and European Union, data protection laws (and also to Ireland's advantageous corporate tax rate).

The social network announced last September it would delete all facial recognition data it stores about its European users, going beyond recommendations made by the Irish DPC to adjust its privacy policy's. Facebook said at the time it had already turned off the facial recognition feature for new users in the E.U., and said it would delete templates for existing users by Oct. 15.

Facebook uses facial recognition technology to suggest whom users should "tag" in photos. While disabled in the E.U., the feature was also temporarily suspended in the U.S. last year. But last Thursday, Facebook announced it re-enabled photo tag suggestions for all U.S. users "to help them easily identify a friend in a photo and share that content with them."

That Facebook indeed deleted the data was also confirmed by the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, said Ulrich Kühn, head of the Hamburg DPC's technical department, on Thursday. He too reviewed parts of Facebook's source code to confirm the facial recognition data was deleted, although he added that he could only speak about the German part of case.

"We asked for confirmation and proof that Facebook had actually" deleted the data, said Kühn, who added that the process took some additional time because of issues with Facebook engineers in the U.S.

At first, Facebook sent part of the source code without explaining what the reviewers were looking at, Kühn said. But after having received additional information, the Hamburg data protection authority is now satisfied that Facebook has deleted the data, he said.

"We wanted to be very sure this was done, so we took our time to be really sure," Kühn said.

As a consequence, the Hamburg DPC ended its proceedings against Facebook's facial recognition technology that were reopened in August after the DPC concluded that Facebook wasn't willing to delete stored facial recognition data of existing users that was gathered without the users' explicit consent.

"For the time being, it is settled," said Kühn.

Facebook couldn't immediately comment on the exchange of source code with the data protection authorities, but a spokesman for a public relations agency representing Facebook said that it is "of course true" that the data was deleted. There are no plans "for the moment" to switch the facial recognition on again in Europe, he said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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