U.S. policymakers are taking a closer look at facial recognition, thrusting privacy concerns over the controversial technology back into the spotlight.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, said last week it planned to study the technology.
“Facial recognition technology can allow a stranger to identify you, by name and in secret, from a photograph taken on the street or copied from the Internet. It has serious implications for consumer privacy and personal safety,” Franken wrote in a letter to the NTIA last month.
“Unfortunately, our privacy laws provide no express protections for facial recognition data; under current law, any company can use facial recognition technology on anyone without getting their permission – and without any meaningful transparency,” he wrote.
The NTIA says it will hold its first meeting in February to bring together representatives from the public and private sectors. The study is part of a privacy initiative from the Obama administration to put in place a consumer privacy bill of rights.
“Companies are beginning to use facial recognition for a wide range of commercial applications,” NTIA administrator Lawrence E. Strickling wrote in an NTIA blog post. “Businesses are incorporating facial recognition capabilities into photo management software, in-store camera systems, online services, game consoles and mobile devices. Facial recognition technology has the potential to improve services for consumers, support innovation by businesses, and affect identification and authentication online and offline. However, the technology poses distinct consumer privacy challenges.”
But privacy watchdogs said they did not expect the Commerce Department to take meaningful steps to protect consumer privacy.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said the NTIA is looking into facial recognition at the behest of industry lobbyists who are pushing for a “self-regulatory scheme so marketers can expand without worry how they capture our physical features and combine it with other personal data.”
“It’s been almost two years since President Obama promised that the administration would ask Congress to enact a privacy bill of rights,” Chester said. “Consumers are not receiving the safeguards the White House promised.”
The Federal Trade Commission has also explored the privacy and security implications of facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition technology is far more controversial in Europe, where Facebook bowed to pressure from regulators to stop using the software and delete data used to identify Facebook users by their photographs.
Facebook uses a sophisticated facial recognition tool to automatically match pictures with names to suggest tagging friends. Now it has expanded that capability to profile photos.
Franken has been a critic of the practice for years, calling Facebook the “world’s largest privately held database of face prints – without the explicit consent of its users.”