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Facial recognition talks break down as privacy advocates withdraw

Facial recognition talks break down as privacy advocates withdraw
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A group of privacy advocates have walked away from administration-backed talks to develop a privacy code of conduct for facial recognition software.

The nine advocates — who represent groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — said they didn’t believe that they would reach a set of shared principles with industry representatives.

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“At this point, we do not believe that the NTIA process is likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offers adequate protections for the use of facial recognition technology,” they said in a statement.

“People deserve more protection than they are likely to get in this forum,” they said. “Therefore, at this point, we choose to withdraw from further deliberations.”

The talks were convened by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration over a year ago in the hopes of developing a code of conduct to govern the use of facial recognition by private companies. They followed a similar process used to write a code to help the developers of mobile apps integrate user privacy into their work.

Facial recognition technology is becoming more common, including being used by video game systems and apps that sort the photos on a user's phone.

An NTIA spokeswoman said the agency was “disappointed” in the departure of the privacy advocates but pledged to continue with the meetings for those who wanted to be involved.

“Up to this point, the process has made good progress as many stakeholders, including privacy advocates, have made substantial, constructive contributions to the group’s work,” she said. “A substantial number of stakeholders want to continue the process and are establishing a working group that will tackle some of the thorniest privacy topics concerning facial recognition technology.”

The advocates say that they found themselves at an impasse with industry representatives over whether companies should ever have to seek consent to use facial recognition on a user or person.

“We are convinced that in many contexts, facial recognition of consumers should only occur when an individual has affirmatively decided to allow it to occur,” they said. “In recent NTIA meetings however, industry stakeholders were unable to agree on any concrete scenario where companies should employ facial recognition only with a consumer’s permission.”

An industry lobbyist indicated to National Journal that the companies would continue to craft their own code of conduct, regardless of whether privacy advocates were involved.

The decision to convene groups of stakeholders at the NTIA came after the White House introduced consumer privacy standards in 2012 — which was unlikely to get traction among lawmakers.