Facebook in court for claimed privacy violations

Belgian court case alleges privacy violations while regulatory concerns halt European deployment of face-recognition app by Facebook.

Facebook in court for claimed privacy violations
Facebook in court for claimed privacy violations

Facebook's approach toward the privacy of both users and non-users is not going down well among European regulators, appearing in a Belgian court case over tracking this week, and withholding the European launch of its photo-sharing app, Moments, due to regulatory concerns about its facial-recognition technology.

While US citizens hate their government spying on them, it would appear that Europeans also distrust big corporations gathering up their private data.

Belgium's privacy watchdog, the Commission for the Protection of Privacy (CPP), is taking the company to court this Thursday for ‘illegal tracking of the social network's users'. It says that the site didn't respond adequately to an earlier report which claimed a raft of privacy violations of European law — and now it wants a judge to force Facebook to comply with its recommendations.

Willem Debeuckelaere, chairman of the CCP, told De Morgen it is concerned about “the way the social network secretly tracks members but also non-members and processes data is flagrant.” He adds, “Even people who specifically indicate that they don't want to be followed are still followed.”

A Facebook spokesperson responded, telling the Independent: "We were surprised and disappointed that, after the CBPL had already agreed to meet with us on the 19th June to discuss their recommendations, they took the theatrical action of bringing Facebook Belgium to court on the day beforehand. Although we are confident that there is no merit to the CBPL's case, we remain happy to work with them in an effort to resolve their concerns, through a dialogue with us at Facebook Ireland and with our regulator, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.”

However the CPP would view the case as potentially clarifying jurisdiction as it wants to extend EU regulatory authority beyond Ireland. Back in 2012, following an audit by Irish regulators, Facebook was forced to remove a feature to identify people. Facebook's DeepFace AI system is claimed to be capable of identifying users with a 97.25 percent level of accuracy.

Now, as the company launches a similar service for iOS and Android users in the US, called Moments, Richard Allan, Facebook's head of policy in Europe, says Facebook is seeking an agreement with its regulator in Ireland on how to offer the technology to EU residents.

Allan is reported as saying: “Regulators have told us we have to offer an opt-in choice to people to do this. We don't have an opt-in mechanism so it is turned off until we develop one.”

Separately a class action is underway in Vienna's Regional Court in Austria: Europe versus Facebook, led by privacy campaigner Max Schrems, which also alleges data protection violations, in relation to the NSA's PRISM surveillance programme, with damages put at $500 per user.

It is expected that even if Irish approval for Moments were forthcoming, other EU regulators will want to have their say.  Sarb Sembhi, Storm, told SCMagazineUK.com: Facebook has tried to extend the amount of personal information that people should offer to use its services and keeps pushing the boundaries to get more. If the regulators had not picked up this issue Facebook it would possibly want to go still further,” noting how Chrome was once alleged to have enabled sites to turn on your microphone and record without your permission.

He notes that EU regulators are wary of business models that essentially require giving up of more and more information to push advertising to them, so that charges can be made for any use of the platform. He concludes: “If the regulators had thought through in advance the problems that such a service could cause, it probably wouldn't have happened. The regulators are doing the right thing (in seeking to protect the privacy of individuals).”

Last week Google Photos was launched globally, but the company says that its facial-recognition technology used to identify people in photos is available only in the US. Not everyone there is happy about that. Nine privacy organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation withdrew from talks with US government agencies aimed at a “code of conduct.” They say they were unable to even get agreement that people should be able to: ‘Walk down a public street without fear that companies they've never heard of are tracking their every movement –and identifying them by name –using facial recognition technology'.