Privacy advocates pull out of U.S. facial recognition discussions

June 16, 2015 - 

Privacy advocates announced today that they will abandon the U.S. government’s effort to establish voluntary protocols for facial recognition technology.

As BiometricUpdate.com originally reported over two years ago, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, developed a consultation process to examine the commercial use of the technology and write a voluntary code of conduct for private companies that use it.

According to the government, stakeholders discussed how best facial recognition data could be secured in retail or online environments where technologies can collect, collate and even geo-locate information about consumers, based on facial likeness.

Discussions revolved around issues such as the right to control data, along with transparency, security, access and accuracy. The process even examined how collection and accountability can be respected within the context of current and emerging commercial uses of facial recognition technology.

Concerns about the technology first arose when Facebook began cataloging user profile pictures into a system that allowed the firm to automatically tag photos of its users.

The multi-stakeholder process, led by the NTIA, was devised to implement a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights”, part of the Obama Administration’s blueprint for improving consumers’ privacy protection while promoting continued growth of the digital economy.

After 16 months of discussion however, all of the privacy advocates who participated in the process, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America, decided to withdraw from further negotiations.

In a statement released today, the organizations stated that: “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. 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. 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.”

The organizations argue that people should have a “fundamental right to privacy” and a “right to control who gets their sensitive information, and how that information is shared.” The groups notes that biometric information is extremely sensitive: “You can change your password and your credit card number; you cannot change your fingerprints or the precise dimensions of your face. Through facial recognition, these immutable, physical facts can be used to identify you, remotely and in secret, without any recourse.”

The organizations further note that: “At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement –and identifying them by name –using facial recognition technology. Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise. The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law.”

In the wake of the privacy group pull out, an NTIA spokeswoman said the government believed that progress had been made and that work will continue. “The process is the strongest when all interested parties participate and are willing to engage on all issues,” said NTIA’s Juliana Gruenwald.

Industry groups have indicated that they believe that consensus can still be found on issues like transparency, notification and data security, though Microsoft has said that it supports the idea that consumers should agree to be recognized by biometric technology before it is used.

Privacy groups have also gone on record to say that any continuing multi-stakeholder consultation process that only involves industry would lack legitimacy.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.