Facial-Recognition Technologies Spur Privacy Concerns

In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is reflected in the eye of a man on March 25, 2009 in London, England. The British government has made proposals which would force Social networking websites such as Facebook to pass on details of users, friends and contacts to help fight terrorism.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
Dec. 3, 2013, 6:40 a.m.

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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