Privacy advocates continue to reject facial recognition code of conduct

March 31, 2016 - 

The National Telecommunication and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has developed a consultation process to examine the commercial use of facial recognition technology and write a voluntary code of conduct for private companies that use it.

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.

According to a recent BiometricUpdate.com article, a preliminary draft of the code was presented at a NTIA meeting a few days ago. Over the past two years, stakeholders involved in the process have discussed how best to ensure that consumers’ rights to control, transparency, security, access and accuracy, focused collection and accountability are respected within the context of current and emerging commercial uses of facial recognition technology.

In the summer of 2015 however, after 16 months of discussion, all of the privacy advocates who participated in the process, which included: 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.

The organizations stated they withdrew from the process because they did not believe that the NTIA process was likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offers adequate protections for the use of facial recognition technology.

In a joint statement at the time, the groups stated: “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.”

With the release of the preliminary draft of the code of conduct, the groups have reiterated their opposition to the process, which they define as an opportunity for lobbyists to “craft purposefully vague proposals without any real safeguards for biometric data”.

Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, recently authored a statement representing the privacy advocates’ viewpoint. In part, it said: “Consumer groups have called on industry to support pro-consumer and pro-rights policies that would ensure an individual can decide whether facial and other personal physical information can be collected in the first place. Last June, however, the industry dominated process led by the Department of Commerce refused to support respecting a persons’ right to control how their biometric data can be gathered and used. As a result, consumer and privacy groups withdrew from the Commerce Department “stakeholder” convening on facial recognition. These meetings—primarily dominated by industry lobbyists—are part of a White House initiated effort to design “codes of conduct” to ensure American’s have greater privacy rights. But instead of trying to address the concerns of the consumer and privacy community about meaningful safeguards for facial recognition when used for commercial purposes, the Commerce Department merely continued the process without their participation. For the Commerce Department, its priority is to help grow the consumer data profiling industry—regardless of whether Americans face a serious threat to their privacy and the consequences of potential discriminatory and unfair practices.”

“[T]he Commerce Department is considering industry proposals on facial recognition that fail to ensure the American public is protected by the growing use of facial data collection for commercial use. The drafts allow unlimited use of our most personal data without effective safeguards. Instead of ensuring basic rights—such as giving people the right to make informed decisions prior to the collection of their facial data—the industry proposes a scheme that would allow it to harvest our faces, skin color, age, race/ethnicity and more without any limit.”

He concluded: “By allowing such a clearly inadequate and self-serving industry proposal to be considered at all, the Department of Commerce (and its NTIA division) demonstrates it cannot be trusted to protect consumers. It is putting the commercial interests of the data industry ahead of its responsibilities to the American public. The process and the proposals are not reflective of America today. We cannot believe that President Obama endorses how his Commerce Department has transformed the idea of a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” into one that really gives carte blanche to the unfettered use of our faces and other highly personal biometric information.”

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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.