Government use of facial recognition out of privacy talks

The Commerce Department’s privacy talks about facial recognition technology will not focus on the U.S. government’s use of that technology, agency officials said Tuesday.

While the talks may touch on government use of facial recognition technology in the future, the officials said, the group should stick to its original goal of outlining a privacy-enhancing code of conduct for commercial use of this technology.

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The group, which includes tech companies and privacy advocates and was convened by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration, met for the second time on Tuesday.

At the group’s first meeting, earlier this month, privacy advocates pushed the agency to include information about how government and law enforcement agencies are using facial recognition technologies.

John Morris, director of Internet policy at the agency, said the group should focus its energy on crafting a code of conduct to guide commercial entities, which can be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

“The government’s use of the facial recognition technology is really outside the scope of the FTC’s enforcement,” Morris said.

“A discussion of how the government itself might use this technology," he said, "is really not going to point to an element of a code of conduct ... affecting commercial entities.” 

The group could tangentially address government use of facial recognition technology as it discusses commercial uses of the technology, Morris said.

“There are absolutely some privacy issues that focus on commercial use that could impact the government,” he said, but “our view is that commercial use of facial recognition technology is an important topic and it’s a big topic, and I actually think that this group will have an awful lot on its plate.”

The privacy advocates who had called for more information on government use of facial recognition technology pushed back on Morris’s statements, arguing that the information would help inform the commercially focused code.

“In order to develop a code of conduct ... we need to understand how that data will be collected, used and shared, including with the government,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. 

ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese said the group crafting the code should at least be aware of government use of facial recognition technology “to the extent that it intersects with the commercial sector,” even if the National Telecommunications Information Administration and FTC have no jurisdiction over other government agencies.

“Without understanding those things, I don’t see how I can tell anyone 'yes, this is a privacy protective code,' ” Calabrese said.

Morris reiterated that the topic of government use could be indirectly relevant as the group moves forward.

“At an appropriate time within this process, we may need to kind of revisit this,” he said.