Keep an (Unrecognised) Eye on Hamburg vs. Facebook

By David Knight |

Who fancies taking on Facebook in court, then? Well, Hamburg, for a start. The social network’s dedication to sharing and interaction was bound to get it into trouble at some point with Germany’s strict privacy laws, and it seems that the authorities in the port city – one of the country’s three city states – have finally had enough.

The data protection authority in Hamburg has announced it will start preparing legal action against Facebook after lengthy talks failed, saying “further negotiations are pointless.” The problems stem from the automatic facial recognition features used by Facebook.

In a German-language statement on their website, the authority said facial recognition “require a comprehensive database of the biometric features of all users” to be stored. It added: “Facebook has introduced this feature in Europe, without informing the user and without obtaining the required consent. Unequivocal consent of the parties is required by both European and national data protection laws.”

The authority had been in talks with Facebook over a way forward since August, but it seems no middle ground has been found. A Facebook statement sent to German news site Deutsche Welle said: “We believe that any legal action is completely unnecessary.”  Their argument is that any Facebook user can opt out of facial recognition.

However you see this particular case, privacy was always going to lead to conflict in Germany. Privacy and data protection laws here are much stronger than elsewhere in Europe – there are notably less CCTV cameras in Berlin than in, say, London – even as the digital world increasingly leads to more transparency in everyday life.

Should the case come to court, it could have consequences for some of the tech start ups in Germany. If Facebook loses, it would barely constitute a setback for such a massive operation, but it could cause small firms in Berlin and elsewhere to have to rethink their products. Hopefully it won’t come to that – does the Hamburg authority really plan to go to court, or is it just a way of putting pressure on the social network? – but many people whose work is centred on social platforms will be watching with baited breath.