Tech, privacy groups commit to administration’s facial recognition talks

Tech groups and privacy advocates are signing on to work with the Obama administration on privacy concerns related to facial recognition technology.

The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would begin examining facial recognition technology early next year.

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration was tasked by the White House in 2012 to convene tech companies and privacy advocates to address digital privacy issues.

The agency’s first privacy process wrapped up earlier this year and was focused on mobile app privacy policies.

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The Software and Information Industry Association — which includes Apple, Google and IBM among its members and had participated in the first process — said it would be participating in the facial recognition talks.

In a statement, the group’s president, Ken Wasch, commended the Commerce agency for focusing “on a definable area where stakeholders have already begun to collaborate on best practices.”

The agency can “combine a wide range of stakeholders … to draw on a wealth of expertise in a collaborative process,” he said.

The Application Developers Alliance — which works with Google, Yahoo, Samsung and app developers — will also be returning for the agency’s facial recognition discussions.

“Many app developers are building innovative solutions for consumers using facial recognition technologies,” the alliance’s president, Jon Potter, said in a statement.

“We anticipate productive discussions, bringing industry and consumer privacy advocates together to find common ground.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also said it would participate. During the Commerce agency’s first privacy process, the ACLU and the App Developers Alliance played major roles in drafting the final set of best practices.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said the advocacy group is “very pleased” that the agency “is keeping a focus on consumer privacy and has chosen facial recognition as the topic of its next meeting.”

Calabrese also called on the Obama administration to release its promised “model legislative language to create a consumer privacy bill of rights.”

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of privacy advocacy group the Center for Digital Democracy, echoed those calls and criticized the Commerce agency’s process.

“It's been almost two years since President Obama promised that the Administration would ask Congress to enact a Privacy Bill of Rights,” he said. 

“But all we have so far is an online data collection friendly self-regulatory initiative run by the Department of Commerce.”

The agency is taking a “piecemeal approach,” which “means that consumers are not receiving the safeguards the White House promised,” he said.  

“It's time the Administration lived up to its commitment to protect online users, and deliver a bill to Congress that places people — not the Big Data lobby — in control of their data.”

NetChoice — which represents AOL, Facebook and Yahoo — warned the agency to protect the benefits of facial recognition technology while discussing its privacy implications.

“Facial recognition software saves users from hours of tagging photos, eases logging into phones and gaming consoles, and decreases the costs of goods in department stores,” Carl Szabo, NetChoice policy counsel, said in a statement.

“This process should not remove the use of these tools.”

Szabo also noted the intersection of facial recognition technology and the legal protections for photography in public places.

"The process must avoid limiting the rights of public photography that civil liberties groups work to protect,” he said.