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German official challenges Facebook on data it keeps on non-users

July 7, 2010 |  3:03 pm

A German data protection official is challenging how Facebook Inc. handles data from people who have not signed up for its service without their explicit permission in yet another clash between a major Silicon Valley company and Germany’s strict data protection and privacy laws.

Johannes Caspar, who runs data protection in Hamburg, said he had received complaints about Facebook’s invitation system, which lets users import contacts from their address books to see whether they are members of Facebook or to invite them to join. Caspar accused Facebook of keeping information about people who do not belong to the social networking site without their permission and in violation of Germany’s data protection laws.

The Hamburg agency has launched a formal investigation and has given Facebook until Aug. 11 to respond.

"We consider the saving of data from third parties, in this context, to be against data privacy laws," Caspar said in a statement.

Facebook said Wednesday it had received a letter from Caspar and was preparing a response.

"We are currently reviewing it and will readily respond to it within the given time frame,” spokesman Andrew Noyes said. “Millions of Germans come to Facebook each day to find their friends, share information with them and connect to the world around them.”

Facebook holds on to the information to help users find their friends when they join Facebook. The addresses are added to a user’s address book on the site.

Last year Canada’s privacy commissioner expressed similar concerns about the invitation feature. Facebook built a tool that allows people who are not members of the site to remove their e-mail addresses.

Germany has some of the world's strictest data protection laws. Its authorities have become vocal in challenging Apple Inc. and Google Inc. on privacy. A German probe triggered Google's disclosure that it had been inadvertently collecting personal data from unsecured wireless networks for three years while operating its Street View mapping service.

-- Jessica Guynn