A Senate panel on Wednesday examined the growing emergence of facial-recognition technology, questioning whether restrictions should be imposed on its use by both government agencies and the private sector before it becomes ubiquitous.
Such technologies are already being used in a variety of ways, from identifying friends in photos uploaded to Facebook to helping law enforcement ensure they are releasing the right prisoners from jails. But some privacy advocates and lawmakers say that unlike fingerprints or other forms of identification, facial recognition raises much deeper privacy fears because it can be used remotely and without a user’s permission or knowledge.
“Americans cannot participate in society without exposing their faces to public view,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law during a hearing. “It’s imperative that Congress act to limit unnecessary collection” of such images.
Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken, D-Minn., noted that currently there are few limits to the use of this technology by law enforcement or industry. The FBI earlier this year launched a pilot program to begin using facial-recognition technology to allow law-enforcement agencies to search a database of mug shots. FBI Deputy Assistant Director Jerome Pender said the program would go into full effect in the summer of 2014 and emphasized that it would be limited to mug shots and would not include other types of photos.
In the private sector, Facebook introduced a feature in late 2010 that automatically identifies and suggests people to share a photo with once it is uploaded to the social-networking site. Rob Sherman, Facebook's privacy and public-policy manager, told the panel that the site removed the feature a few months ago so it could improve it and plans to reintroduce it in the coming months. Facebook, however, still allows people to manually “tag” others in photos they upload to their Facebook page, a service that is automatically turned on for users.
Franken and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., quizzed Sherman on why Facebook doesn’t allow users to opt into the tagging feature. Sherman argued that users already opt into using Facebook and that tagging people in photos is offered in the context of “existing” friendships. “We think there are benefits in terms of engagement and privacy,” he said.
After the hearing, Franken said he has no immediate plans to introduce legislation placing limits on facial-recognition technology but expects that lawmakers will continue “chewing and mulling” the issue. Still, he said he believes that consumers should be given the choice to opt into the use of facial recognition and other technologies that pose privacy concerns.