FTC Weighs In Facial Recognition Technology Privacy Protections

By Cameron Scott 

The Federal Trade Commission today released guidelines for minimum privacy-sensitive use of facial recognition technology, which is increasingly used by social networks.

The FTC recommends that companies notify consumers when facial recognition technology is in use, protect sensitive user data and keep only the data they need and avoid using facial recognition in sensitive areas such as bathrooms and places where children congregate.

The FTC also recommends that companies obtain active consent before using consumers’ images or biometric data in a different way than they represented when they collected it or when the technology will identify images of an individual to someone who couldn’t otherwise identify him or her.

“The FTC’s facial recognition guidelines are great recommendations, but as of now, they’re merely recommendations,” said Sarah Downey, an attorney with Abine, a privacy-oriented software company.

Facial recognition technologies have been adopted in a variety of contexts, ranging from online social networks and mobile apps to commercial displays and advertising provisioning systems, according to the FTC report. One app controversially used the technology to notify potential bar-goers of how many men and women within a specified age group were at particular nightclubs. According to the recommendations, as consumers approached the cameras that were generating this data, they should have been notified that facial recognition technology was in use.

Facial recognition is a growing concern among privacy advocates. In December, the FTC held a seminar to address those concerns; today’s report represents the conference’s findings.

The technology has become much more effective in the past few years as digital cameras have produced crisper images, 3D imaging has allowed companies to correct for different angles in photographs, and consumers have posted more photos of themselves online as they participate in social networks. In 2010, the error rate of facial recognition technology stood at less than one percent, according to the FTC report.

“The Commission didn’t mention perhaps the biggest threat: severe chilling effects on our freedom of speech and association. If facial recognition technology can identify strangers in public, then people wouldn’t be as likely to go to political rallies, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, gay bars, abortion clinics, and other places where they have a right to be,” Downey said.

Updated with Sarah Downey’s opinions at 5:30 p.m.

Related: In this episode of mediabistro’s “Cubes,” right around the 1:23 mark, IPG Media Lab director of strategy Natalie Bokenham talks about a surveillance system in the company’s headquarters that can guess your approximate age.