Commerce Department Takes On Facial Recognition
The Department of Commerce will convene industry representatives and consumer advocates in an attempt to forge privacy standards governing facial recognition technology, the agency said on Tuesday.
“The goal of the process is to develop a voluntary, enforceable code of conduct,” the National Telecommunications & Information Administration stated. “Stakeholders will discuss how best to ensure that consumers' rights to control, transparency, security, access and accuracy, focused collection, and accountability are respected within the context of current and emerging commercial uses of facial recognition technology.”
Facial recognition will be the second major privacy topic tackled by the NTIA since last year, when the Obama Administration called on the agency to convene “multi-stakeholder” meetings about privacy. The agency previously convened addressed mobile apps.
Facial recognition technology, which identifies people based on their photos, is still relatively new and not yet in widespread use in retail environments. One well-known example of its use online is Facebook's automatic face-tagging feature, which prompts people to tag photos of friends with their names.Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), cheered news of the NTIA's upcoming meetings. “While facial recognition can be useful, these programs don't do enough to protect privacy -- and they are just the beginning of what is a growing technology,” he said in a statement. “I think that this new multistakeholder process is an important opportunity to advance privacy protections for this powerful new technology.”
Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the digital rights group Center for Democracy and Technology, adds that facial recognition is “hugely important long-term.”
“Real public safety concerns will probably give companies a reason to agree to codes with strong privacy protections,” he says.
But some other consumer advocates were less enthusiastic. Jeff Chester, executive director of the privacy group Center for Digital Democracy, says the NTIA should have commissioned research about data collection before deciding which topic to address next. “Instead of focusing on how to ensure online consumers aren't tracked without their permission, the Commerce Department is focusing on issues that don't get to the core of the privacy problem in the U.S.,” he says in an email.Chester and other watchdogs have criticized the NTIA for how it handled the mobile privacy initiative. Those meetings resulted in a group of tech companies promising to test "short form" notices, which aim to notify consumers about data collection by apps. The idea is that developers will describe the information collected by apps in a single word, or short phrase -- like “biometrics,” or “location” -- followed by brief definitions. But that plan is controversial, given that some research suggests consumers won't understand the notices.
"Facial Recognition" photo from Shutterstock.