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.
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.