Administration to review facial recognition technology

The Obama administration on Tuesday said it plans to review the privacy implications of facial recognition technology.
 
Lawmakers and privacy advocates have expressed fears that tech companies and government agencies are using facial recognition technologies to track people, often without their knowledge.

The Commerce Department said it recognizes those concerns and will work with tech groups, privacy advocates and online advertising trade associations to identify them.

“Facial recognition technology has the potential to improve services for consumers, support innovation by businesses, and affect identification and authentication online and offline,” said Larry Strickling, the administrator of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

“However, the technology poses distinct consumer privacy challenges … and the importance of securing faceprints and ensuring consumers’ appropriate control over their data is clear,” he said.

In February 2012, the Obama administration tasked the NTIA with bringing together tech companies, advertising firms and advocacy groups to work on digital privacy issues.

The agency completed an 18-month review of mobile app privacy policies and will turn to facial recognition technology in early 2014.

Strickling said the discussions “could include an examination of the privacy risks associated with the use of photo databases in stores and other commercial settings and face prints as a unique biometric identifier.”

Lawmakers have sounded the alarm about the growing use of facial recognition on the Internet and by law enforcement officials.

In a letter last month, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked the NTIA to explore facial recognition concerns, citing specific concerns with the way Facebook is cataloguing its users’ profile pictures.

Franken on Tuesday hailed the NTIA’s move as “great news for privacy” while pointing to “expansive facial recognition programs” like one at the FBI.

“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,” Franken said.
 
The Commerce agency’s process will provide “an important opportunity to advance privacy protections for this powerful new technology,” he said.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also applauded the agency’s move.

“Clear policies that support consumer privacy are crucial as facial recognition technology is developed and deployed,” he said.

“While these technologies hold great promise for innovation, consumers — not companies — should to be in control of their sensitive personal information, including having the choice to affirmatively opt-in to being subject to facial recognition or detection.”

The agency said the first meeting about the technology will take place Feb. 6, 2014.

— This story was first posted at 9:14 a.m. and has been updated.