Consumer Groups Opt Out of Facial Recognition Talks

Consumer groups are pulling out of an NTIA-led multistakeholder process to come up with a voluntary code of conduct on facial recognition technology, saying they don't see a way that the process will result in adequate protections.

The groups are particularly concerned with what they see as an inability of the industry stakeholders to agree to any variation on an opt-in model, but also say their withdrawal should be taken as a signal to reevaluate the effectiveness of the multistakeholder process in general.

According to a letter to NTIA being sent Tuesday, the groups spelled out their disaffection with the meetings.

"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."

NTIA has been leading a series of stakeholder meetings to try to come up with voluntary guidelines to enforce elements of the Obama Administration's privacy bill of rights including mobile aps and facial recognition, to mixed reviews. The Administration has also proposed legislation to put some teeth into the bill of rights, but that is a tough ask in a Republican-controlled Congress.

According to Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) executive director Jeff Chester, last week's stakeholder meeting was the "digital straw that broke the proverbial camel privacy back" after industry players would not agree to any opt-in scenarios, he said. Chester has described the multistakeholder process under the Administration-led process as a lobbyist-dominated forum.

Alvaro Bedoya from the Center on Privacy & Technology, agreed that recalcitrance on any opt-in model was the key issue. He said that after consumer groups proposed, and industry players could not agree on a general opt-in guideline, with exceptions, it offered an even narrower guideline, but industry members still could not agree.

"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," they wrote NTIA. "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." 

"We think consumers deserve more than they can get out of this process," Bedoya said.

Without consumer groups, the process could conceivably continue, but the optics would clearly not be good. But Bedoya said it was about more than optics. It is supposed to be a multistakeholder process, he said, adding "I don't think there is a "multi" there if the consumer groups pull out.

At press time, the groups pulling out, in addition to CDD and the Center on Privacy and Technology, were ACLU, Common Sense Media, Center for Democracy & Technology, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Consumer Action.

NTIA signaled the multistakeholder process would continue with or without them.

“NTIA is disappointed that some stakeholders have chosen to stop participating in our multistakeholder engagement process regarding privacy and commercial facial recognition technology," said an NTIA spokesperson. "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. 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 process is the strongest when all interested parties participate and are willing to engage on all issues. NTIA will continue to facilitate meetings on this topic for those stakeholders who want to participate.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.