Senator asks Commerce agency to examine facial recognition

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked the Commerce Department to bring together tech companies and privacy advocates to discuss facial recognition technology.

The tech community should develop best practices to protect users from facial recognition technology, he said in a letter to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Thursday.

In February 2012, the White House announced its “Privacy Bill of Rights” and directed the Commerce agency to convene a series of stakeholder discussions to address digital privacy issues. 

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After a year and a half of meetings, a group of tech companies, trade associations and privacy advocates concluded the first set of discussions aimed at creating a shorter way for apps to disclose how they collect and share user data.

Participants in that first set of discussions have said the Commerce agency has expressed interest in examining facial recognition technology next.

In his letter on Thursday, Franken asked that the agency take up the issue of facial recognition “as quickly as possible.”

He pointed to a recent update in Facebook’s data use policy as evidence that the topic of facial recognition needs to be examined.

“The urgency of this matter is underlined by Facebook’s recent expansion of its facial recognition database – already likely the largest in private hands,” he wrote.

Last week, Facebook updated the language in its data use policy after a court ordered the company to provide clarity as to how it collects and applies user data. In the update, Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan said it would be using public profile pictures to identify users in other photos.

“By using your profile picture for tag suggest, we can improve our ability to suggest that people tag you in a photo giving you a heads up that the photo has been posted and the ability to take action,” Egan wrote.

Franken criticized Facebook’s change, saying the updated policy “will expand its facial recognition program to include some of the site’s least active users – those who only had a profile photo and weren’t tagged in any other photos.”

Franken said he is “exploring legislation” that would address these privacy concerns, but asked the Commerce agency “to convene industry stakeholders and privacy advocates to establish consensus-driven best practices for the use of this technology — which won’t be waiting for us before it reaches pervasive deployment.”