Facebook to Face Senate Hearing on Facial Recognition

Subcommittee to examine impact of technology on privacy

Facebook's use of facial recognition technology to help users identify and tag people in posted photos will be scrutinized during a Senate subcommittee hearing to examine the impact of facial recognition technology on consumer privacy.

Rob Sherman, Facebook's manager of privacy and public policy, will defend the social network's new feature, which the company rolled out more than a year ago—culminating in the purchase of the Israeli company Face.com in June.

The feature, deemed nothing less than creepy by U.S. and European privacy groups, has come under attack, forcing Facebook to make it easier for users to opt out of it.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, called for the hearing and expressed his reservations about the Facebook feature in comments filed this spring with the Federal Trade Commission. (The FTC held a workshop on facial recognition technology last December, inviting public comments.)

"The dimensions of our faces are as unique to us as our fingerprints," said Sen. Franken in a statement. "And right now technology exists that gives the government and companies the ability to figure out your name and other personal information about you with nothing more than a photograph."

In his comments to the FTC, Franken estimated that Facebook could hold the largest privately held face print database in the world. "A back of the envelope calculation suggests that Facebook could easily have a face print for one out of every 20 people on the planet," Franken wrote.

Wednesday's hearing will also examine how law enforcement uses facial recognition technology. Representatives from the FBI and the FTC will be on hand to discuss current practices.

"Facial recognition technology could become a powerful and positive tool for public safety and private sector innovation. The key is to ensure that strong safeguards exist for privacy and civil liberties so that the benefits of these biometric technologies aren't outweighed by negative effects on privacy," Franken wrote in his FTC comments.