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Facial-Recognition Technologies Spur Privacy Concerns

Facebook uses users' profile photos for facial-recognition technology.(Getty Images)

photo of Laura Ryan
December 3, 2013

As facial-reading technology gains momentum, policymakers are stepping up to check inherent privacy risks connected to the technology.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Tuesday that facial-reading technology will be the next topic of its ongoing privacy study, which brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to create enforceable rules in the business context. The announcement comes two weeks after Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., pressed the agency to take up the issue in response to Facebook's privacy policy change to allow the use of user profile photos for its facial-recognition technology.

"[Facial-recognition technology] has serious implications for consumer privacy and personal safety," Franken said in a letter to NTIA. "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."


The technology presents numerous opportunities to make customer service seamless, improve identification, and create opportunities for innovation. For example, The New York Times reports face-reading software could detect if a student was confused and provide them with extra tutoring.

But as facial data is collected and becomes readily available, there is a deficiency of laws to protect a user's control over the use and distribution of this information.

"Digital images are increasingly available, and the importance of securing faceprints and ensuring consumers' appropriate control over their data is clear," said Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information for the Commerce Departgment and NTIA's administrator.

Stakeholders will convene for the first meeting on Feb. 6, with additional meetings to be scheduled throughout the spring and summer.

The Commerce Department agency began the privacy multistakeholder process in 2012 as part of the Obama administration's effort to implement a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Its first topic--privacy notifications on mobile devices--took more than a year to complete.

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