GAO Signals Facial Recognition Privacy Protections Needed

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said a just-released GAO report on facial recognition technology (Franken requested the report), is "a reminder" that more "action" is needed to protect privacy.

The report found that federal laws do not directly address the technology, not surprisingly since one of the issues now before Congress is how to update laws at the speed of digital. There are no laws governing how the information gleaned from the technology can be used of shared.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration this week held a stakeholder meeting to review a pair of proposed best practices documents and the GAO report said that voluntary guidelines effort is "a positive step toward incorporating privacy considerations into the development and use of facial recognition technology."

But the report also pointed out that views "vary" on the effectiveness of voluntary of self-regulatory approaches. Among those variations are a bunch of privacy groups that pulled out of the facial recognition multistakeholder process saying they had no confidence effective best practices would result.

Among the report's findings were that digital signs, usually TV monitors in stores or Kiosks displaying advertising, were being used to "recognize characteristics of the viewer, such as gender or age range, and target advertisements accordingly."

GAO also said Google told it that it does not share, and has no plans to share, "information associated with facial recognition technology without user consent, except in very limited circumstances as described in its privacy policy (i.e., with domain administrators, for external processing by company affiliates or trusted parties, or for legal reasons)," though it is not clear what external processing by those parties would entail.

“Last year, I asked the government’s independent investigative agency to examine the privacy implications of the commercial use of facial recognition technology," said Franken. "The newly released report raises serious concerns about how companies are collecting, using, and storing our most sensitive personal information. I believe that all Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, which is why it’s important that, at the very least, the tech industry adopts strong, industry-wide standards for facial recognition technology. But what we really need are federal standards that address facial recognition privacy by enhancing our consumer privacy framework....  the privacy issues stakeholders have raised about facial recognition technology and other biometric technologies serve as yet another example of the need to adapt federal privacy law to reflect new technologies."

Those issues include that the technology can be used to track people's movements or identify and discriminate against the poor, or elderly or minorities, or that those denying use of the technology could be denied access to certain products or services.

The GAO did not come to any hard and fast conclusions in the report, but did say that, as it suggested in 2013, "Congress consider strengthening the consumer privacy framework to reflect changes in technology and the marketplace, and facial recognition technology is such a change."

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.