Sen. Franken Presses Apple on Facial Recognition

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is concerned about Apple using facial recognition to unlock the new iPhone X.

In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook Wednesday, Sept. 13, Franken said he would like some answers to a variety of questions about the privacy and security of the system, say, unlocking the device with a photo or mask.

"As a result, should a bad actor gain access to the face print data that Face ID requires, the ramifications could last forever, particularly if Apple’s biometric technology comes to be used in other devices and settings," he said in the letter. "Furthermore, Apple itself could use the data to benefit other sectors of its business, sell it to third parties for surveillance purposes, or receive law enforcement requests to access it facial recognition system – eventual uses that may not be contemplated by Apple customers."

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Among the questions he wants answered is whether Apple has plans to use face print data for other purposes than ID, how users will be able to control the use of that data, how Apple can prevent the unlocking of a phone when someone other than the owners holds it up to the owner's face, how Apple would respond to law enforcement requests for face print data.

Franken had praise for Apple as well as concern.

"I am encouraged by the steps that Apple states it has taken to implement the system responsibly," he said.

"However, substantial questions remain about how Face ID will impact iPhone users’ privacy and security, and whether the technology will perform equally well on different groups of people."

Franken cited reports about other facial recognition systems that had a higher error rate for people of color.

Franken said that to offer "clarity" to the millions who use Apple's products, "I ask that you provide more information on how the company has processed these issues internally, as well as any additional steps that it intends to take to protect its users.”

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.