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Facebook switches off facial recognition tool

Facebook has switched off a facial recognition tool after criticism from regulators. The feature had been identified as a major threat to privacy and led to a European Union probe.

Facebook said on Friday that default software prompting users to "tag" photographs had been turned off for users inside the EU. This was one of the measures taken after the company was told by authorities in Ireland - the site of Facebook's European headquarters - to overhaul privacy protection measures for its EU users.

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, said he was satisfied that Facebook had sufficiently overhauled its privacy protection standards.

"By doing so, it is sending a clear signal of its wish to demonstrate its commitment to best practice in data protection compliance," Hawkes said.

The site introduced the feature to encourage people to share photographs more widely by "tagging" them with the names of friends. The software helped users tag other people by automatically identifying them.

Fingers on the keyboard

The feature is now unavailable to users within Europe

The software has allowed the company to effectively create a biometric database of its members. Germany's Office of Data Protection and Freedom of Information said this practice was illegal under European law.

"We have agreed to suspend the 'Tag Suggest' feature in Europe," Facebook said in a statement, adding it would work to adapt the technology in a way that conforms to European rules.

Disatisfaction from Austrian opponents

Facebook, which was ordered to switch the feature off by October 15, said it had already done so. It added that it would work to remove content uploaded via the software by that date.

Much of the pressure against Facebook's privacy policy came from an Austrian-based group of student activists, "europe-v-facebook."

The group said on Friday that the new measures did not go far enough, complaining that the changes were not comprehensive enough and that the company had not been fined for failing to address all of the concerns.

rc / msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)