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Germany Reopens Probe Into Facebook's Face Recognition Tool

FRANKFURT -- Germany has reopened an investigation into Facebook Inc. (FB) over the social-networking site's photo-tagging feature, which it says violates the country's privacy laws. At issue is a database Facebook has compiled by digitally scanning its users' faces, which allows the company to identify people in uploaded photos on the site and alert them and their Facebook friends by making photo tag suggestions. Data protection chief in the city of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, says Facebook introduced the feature without informing users or getting their consent and he wants the database deleted. An earlier probe last year in Germany was suspended in June to allow discussions on the matter to take place between Facebook and authorities in Ireland, where most of Facebook's international operations are based. The talks led to Facebook pledging to stop using the facial recognition function for new users in Europe, but Mr. Caspar said this doesn't go far enough. The data protection chief wants Facebook -- which has 955 million users worldwide and 20 million in Germany- to delete the facial recognition data unless it obtains approval from all the users concerned, citing an "immense potential for misuse." A similar investigation is also under way in Norway. In an e-mailed statement, Facebook said it believes the feature is fully compliant with European Union data protection laws and noted that it agreed with Irish data protection authorities to develop a best practice solution to notify people on Facebook about the photo tag feature. Germany -- where citizens are outspoken on safeguarding privacy -- has some of Europe's tightest rules. Last year, Facebook agreed to change the way it handles the personal data of non-users of its social network via its "Friend Finder" feature after a dispute with Hamburg regulators. The Hamburg authority has furthermore looked into Facebook's use of Internet cookies, small computer files or software programs installed on a user's computer by the Web pages that are visited. Last year it produced a brochure for Facebook users with tips on how to protect their data on the site. Germany was also the only country where Google Inc. (GOOG) allowed residents to opt out of its Street View mapping service before the product launched. Write to Harriet Torry at [email protected] Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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