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Germany: Facebook Illegally Accessed, Saved Non-User's Data


German authorities have launched a legal case against Facebook for violation of the nation's strict user privacy laws. The case hinges on Facebook's retention of data on people who hadn't signed up to Facebook themselves. 

The Hamburg Data Protection Authority is behind this legal action, and it's pretty serious stuff according to the body's head Johannes Caspar: He's reported as saying that he considers "the saving of data from third parties, in this context, to be against data privacy laws." Based on a number of complaints that have been received, the Authorities has posted a legal complaint about privacy law violation on behalf of users who found their details on the site despite not being registered Facebookers themselves. The accusation is that this private data is being retained by Facebook for marketing purposes, despite the people in question not giving their permission for their personal data to be used in this way—as they haven't agreed to Facebook's end-user clauses (a condition of signing up for membership).

Facebook has until August 11th to respond, and if the action results in a legal ruling against Facebook, the social networking site could face fines amounting to tens of thousands of Euros. While that's not necessarily a big figure for a website with half a billion members, it could set a tricky precedent for Facebook—officials in Switzerland are reportedly also interested in how Facebook uses third party data.

How did these German folk's info get on Facebook, though, if they're not members? It's pretty easy, actually: It's via their friends. Or, perhaps, through people who are mere acquaintances or possibly who even know about the individuals through a larger friendship group. Facebook offers you the opportunity to tag people in photos, for example, even if they don't have a Facebook account—you merely have to click on their face to append a tag (there's been some debate about this mechanism recently, and it evidently needs a work-over). With various other tricks, it's possible to include info about non-members on Facebook updates, and since Facebook is now choosing to be very cavalier with what it considers to be public instead of private data, it's possible for non-member's data to show up in search engine results. And it can all happen without a person's consent. While this is bad enough, the German complaint contends that Facebook is illegally holding on to this data, with the ultimate goal (as with all Facebook's operations) of maximizing cash returns through tricks like targeted advertising.

Taken with a pinch of rationality, and knowing quite how digital all our media is becoming (and how fast the change is occurring) the complaint isn't all that serious, and Facebook may be able to fix its systems without too much difficulty. But it may not choose to—and it may argue that its merely retaining this info for reasonable purposes. Or the case may start a tricky process where national bodies become increasingly concerned about how much data Facebook is retaining about their citizens, and the lawsuit floodgates may open. Google has, for example, already stirred up a wasps-nest of controversy in Germany over its "privacy invading" Street View cameras, and the German authorities have got involved here too, in attempts to try to regulate how much data the cameras can capture.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.