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NTIA To Tackle Facial Recognition Software

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration has decided to tackle facial recognition technology next in its effort to get stakeholders to agree to guidelines for protecting online privacy.

The first multistakeholder meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 6, 2014.

"Facial recognition technology has the potential to improve services for consumers, support innovation by businesses, and affect identification and authentication online and offline," said NTIA chief Lawrence Strickling in announcing the next phase. "However, the technology poses distinct consumer privacy challenges. Digital images are increasingly available, and the importance of securing faceprints and ensuring consumers' appropriate control over their data is clear.  For this new multistakeholder process, discussions could include an examination of the privacy risks associated with the use of photo databases in stores and other commercial settings and face prints as a unique biometric identifier."

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who last April urged the NTIA to make facial recognition the next topic of discussion, was understandably pleased.

"This is great news for privacy. In the past few years, major companies like Facebook and government agencies like the FBI have rolled out expansive facial recognition programs,” he said in a statement. "While facial recognition can be useful, these programs don't do enough to protect privacy—and they are just the beginning of what is a growing technology.... I think that this new Multistakeholder Process is an important opportunity to advance privacy protections for this powerful new technology.”

“Clear policies that support consumer privacy are key as facial recognition technology is developed and deployed," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has made online privacy one of his priorities in his new Senate seat. "While these technologies hold great promise for innovation, consumers - not companies - should to be in control of their sensitive personal information, including having the choice to affirmatively opt-in to being subject to facial recognition or detection. I commend the NTIA for turning its focus to this emerging technology.”

Not everyone was rolling out the welcome mat.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the groups that had issues with the mobile app guidelines, already has issues with the latest effort.

"The Obama Administration must be using the same people who developed its website to run its program to protect user privacy," Chester said. "The Department of Commerce appears more interested in helping data collectors gather consumer information than ensuring new and effective safeguards. Instead of calling for rules so online consumers aren't tracked without their permission, the Commerce Department is focusing on issues that don't get to the core of the privacy problem in the U.S.  Industry lobbyists pressed the NTIA to focus on creating a self-regulatory scheme for facial recognition, so marketers can expand without worry how they capture our physical features and combine it with other personal data.  The NTIA is not acting responsibly on behalf of consumers."

NTIA is charged with overseeing a multistakeholder process to come up with guidelines to implement the Obama administration's voluntary consumer privacy bill of rights.

The first product of that process was the draft of a mobile app code of conduct issued last summer. The code essentially directs app developers and publishers to provide consumers with short-form notices, in multiple languages where appropriate, on how information is collected and shared by the app.

So far, the process has been contentious, with complaints from both public interest and industry players. Online publishers supported the code, but some public interest groups abstained and the Digital Marketing Association suggested that in the future, industry stakeholders should draft any code they will have to consider adopting, with the multistakeholder meetings providing the opportunity for others, which would include public advocacy groups, to comment on the draft and decide whether or not they will support it.