Commentary

Senator: Public Policy Hasn't Kept Up With Technology

The head of the Senate Commerce Committee has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate privacy questions surrounding Web companies' use of facial recognition technology.

"As in many fast growing and changing sectors, public policy has not kept pace with the development of this sort of technology," Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a letter to the FTC. "The privacy concerns are evident."

Rockefeller mentions several examples of how online companies are pushing the privacy envelope with facial recognition. One of the most high-profile is Facebook's "automatic tagging" feature, which uses facial recognition technology to make it easier for people to tag their friends.

Facebook implemented the automatic facial recognition by default, meaning that people who don't want Facebook to recognize them in photos and suggest their names to friends must opt out of the feature. People already can tag friends without their permission, but the new feature streamlines the process.

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Facebook isn't the only company mentioned by Rockefeller in his letter to the FTC. Google and Apple also can can people's photos in order to identify their friends, he says. What's more, he adds, "it is clear that the technology could reach much further."

Rockefeller continues: "For example, I understand that Google built a facial recognition component into its 'Google Goggles' app that would have allowed a user to take a photo of an individual and scan the entire internet for a match." The letter acknowledges that Google didn't release that feature due to privacy concerns.

Rockefeller specifically asked about the potential benefits of facial recognition technology, as well as the privacy and security issues raised by it. Additionally, he asked the FTC what legal protections exist for consumers.

The FTC has slated a workshop on facial recognition technology for December; Rockefeller is asking the agency to report back to him by early February.

2 comments about "Senator: Public Policy Hasn't Kept Up With Technology".
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  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, October 20, 2011 at 6:52 p.m.

    Neither the FTC nor FCC have been progressive on the key issues of the day. Instead of addressing the privacy concerns that undergird much of today's social media, they are still mired in policy discussions whose raison d'etre are based on assumptions that are no longer true.

    Look at media ownership -- it is a farce to say that media ownership is concentrated to the point where diverse viewpoints are not being heard. MediaPost, like many other news and blogger-based organizations, is proof that media diversity is actually expanding. Another faux issue is availability of broadband to all citizens. The simple truth is that thanks to mobile devices, if you live in a city you have at least five choices of who to purchase broadband from. The choices have expanded from the incumbent CLECs and MSOs to include wireless carriers like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T.

    My experience with Congress is that it is too easy to suffer from shiny-object syndrome. Just because facial recognition is theoretically possible doesn't mean it should leap to the front of the line for discussion by February; it means there should be a more measured approach, such as a framework, for assessing potential challenges arising from new technologies.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 10, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.

    It's never to early to discuss. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And that's the easy response.

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