Privacy groups question use of facial recognition tech

Privacy advocates want the Commerce Department to help shed some light on government use of facial recognition technology.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said he is “really concerned” about “the widespread government use of facial recognition.”

On Thursday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration began its stakeholder process considering the privacy implications of facial recognition technology.

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In 2012, the Obama administration directed the Commerce Department to examine privacy issues. The department began that examination last year by bringing together tech groups and privacy advocates to increase transparency around the ways mobile apps collect, share and use information. 

While the stakeholder process that began with Thursday’s meeting is aimed at consumer issues, privacy advocates in attendance urged the Commerce Department to include government agencies’ use of facial recognition technologies.

Calabrese called on the department to bring in representatives of other Cabinet-level agencies, including from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and State.

John Verdi, director of privacy initiatives at the Commerce Department, responded to those calls by saying that the agency is tasked with examining consumer, not government surveillance, issues.

The mobile app transparency process resulted in a code of conduct that can be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has no jurisdiction over government surveillance, Verdi said.

Calabrese said information on government uses would help stakeholders “understand the technology even if we can’t actually govern the way the government uses the technology.”

Tim Sparapani, vice president for government affairs at the Application Developers Alliance, asked Commerce to pull together public information about government agency contracts regarding facial recognition.

John Morris, director of Internet Policy at Commerce, said the department would consider including information on government uses of facial recognition technology.

“We will take that back and talk further,” he said.