Feds Will Look Into Privacy Concerns Over Facial Recognition Apps

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Facial recognition

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Apple and other device manufacturers experimenting with facial recognition software may soon have to abide by a code of conduct from the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) in an effort to protect consumers’ privacy.

The DOC will hold public meetings throughout the first half of 2014, starting on February 6, in conjunction with National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to discuss the “commercial use of facial recognition technology,” the agency said in a Federal Register notice Tuesday.

Last month, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) wrote NTIA a 20-page letter calling for immediate action to protect consumers’ privacy. “Your face can be the key to an incredible amount of information about you and facial recognition technology can allow strangers to access that information without your knowledge, your permission, and in about as much time as it takes to snap a photo,” Franken wrote.

That letter came on the heels of one he sent to Facebook admonishing its facial recognition program used to find users in untagged photos, saying it can lead to tracking people through shopping mall cameras. Facebook has already deactivated this program for European users after EU lawmakers raised similar privacy concerns.

Apple is also delving into facial recognition’s potential, and last week got a patent on its software to detect and verify facial features via mobile or desktop devices, as a means of protecting stored data by using face recognition instead of a PIN to unlock your phone. (Apple already has fingerprint recognition software in its newest iPhone iteration and recently bought PrimeSense, the company responsible for Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensor technology, TechCrunch recently reported.)

Outside the commercial sector, facial recognition technology is also becoming more ubiquitous in law enforcement agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While the technology is not at the point where it can scan a face and instantaneously link it to a person’s identity, law enforcement—both local and federal—use it to identify criminals from mobile devices and even compare features of unknown suspects to state driver’s license photos.

The face-detecting software is so controversial that Google banned it on Glass apps this summer in its policies. Tokyo’s National Institute of Informatics developed goggles that block facial recognition software with infrared lights.

NTIA’s goal is to “promote trust regarding facial recognition technology in the commercial context” through the code of conduct to address fears of the software being used to track people. But some consumer privacy advocates don’t think the “code” will be enough. Industry lobbyists for facial recognition software have been pushing a self-regulatory solution as a marketing ploy that would enable them to keep pairing personal data with physical features, Center for Digital Democracy’s Executive Director Jeffrey Chester told the Los Angeles Times.