Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) kicked over a new front on the privacy debate in Washington, D.C. today, holding a hearing to explore facial recognition technology and raise awareness about its potential impact on privacy.
Only a few years ago the stuff of sci-fi, facial recognition is quickly becoming pervasive, in digital signs to deliver targeted ads, as a way for consumers to unlock smart phones, and as part of social networking sites like Facebook. The state department uses facial recognition to stop passport fraud, and the FBI is working on a pilot biometric ID program to process criminal mug shots.
“There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with facial recognition technology. It’s a tool that can be used for great good. It can also be abused,” said Franken, chairman of the subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, who ran most of the hearing solo. “Our privacy laws are almost totally unprepared for this technology.”
But, said Franken, “there are uses that should give us pause. Facebook may have created the world’s largest database without [the] knowledge of its users.”
Even though Facebook has temporarily disabled the recognition part of its tagging feature to improve how it works within the network, both Franken and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) want the social network site to change the feature from an opt-out to an opt-in.
“I’m worried about how Facebook handles the choices it gives users about this technology. Nowhere on the screen do you see the words ‘facial recognition’ or a description of it. You have to go to six different screens to get there. How can users make an informed decision?” Franken asked.
Rob Sherman, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, said he believed the company has made the right choice. “People choose to be on Facebook because they choose to share with each other. We think it’s the right choice to let people opt out,” he said.
Franken wasn’t convinced. “We’ll have to disagree a little bit. It’s so sensitive,” he said.
Legislation is a long way off. Like everything in Washington that has to do with privacy, there will be a lot of pushing and shoving between the government and businesses to come to some sort of co-regulation.
To that end, the Federal Trade Commission is working on a report that will outline a proposal of recommended best practices for the commercial use of facial recognition based on some 80 comments it received from a workshop held last December. That report could be released later this year.
“Consumers must have meaningful choice,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection.