Facial Recognition Rises to the Fore of Washington’s Privacy Debate

Ahead of meeting, Franken asks NameTag to delay launch

Facial recognition is about to become central to the debate about consumer privacy.

On Thursday, more than 120 participants representing businesses, social media, advertising, privacy advocates, policymakers—anyone who has an interest in privacy—will meet to begin hammering out voluntary guidelines for the use of facial recognition.

The meetings, which are likely to continue all year, were called by the Commerce Department and organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the Administration's goal to develop a voluntary privacy bill of rights by convening government and private industry.

Facial recognition will be the second topic the group has taken on.

Last year, a series of what Washington dubs "multistakeholder" meetings was held to develop guidelines mobile app privacy and data collection. But after a year of meetings, the group wasn't able to develop a comprehensive code, instead loosely agreeing to test a short-form privacy dashboard that tells consumers about the app's data collection practices. 

Many participants in last year's round of meetings, particularly consumer privacy advocates who walked away scratching their heads about the process, will now try tackling the nascent facial recognition technology.

"Facial recognition technology is being embedded into everything from social networking services in the virtual world to building access systems in the physical one," NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling wrote in a blog post. "Potential risks, if the technology is misused or abused, range from stalking (since a face print could be used to track an individual online and offline) to identity theft (since a face print is a unique biometric identifier)."

Guidelines can't come too soon for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). As chairman of the subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, Franken pressed the NTIA to address facial recognition after getting answers he considered unsatisfactory from Facebook in a hearing he held on facial recognition. (Facebook expanded its use of facial recognition last September.)

Ahead of Thursday's meeting, Franken called out a new app, Nametag, an app for Google Glass developed by FacialNetwork.com that recognizes anyone's face, matches it to the person's name and instantly provides the wearer with publicly available information by mining social media sites on the Internet like Match and OKCupid.

Franken likened Nametag to stalking.

“This is apparently done without that person’s knowledge or consent, which crosses a bright line for privacy and personal safety," Franken wrote in a letter to Nametag. "I urge you to delay this app’s launch until best practices for facial recognition technology are established…. At a minimum, Nametag should only identify people who have given the app permission to do so….It is easy to envision how this technology could facilitate harassment, stalking and other threats to personal security."

In a statement, Nametag creator Kevin Tussy, countered that the app, which is still in beta, has been the victim of "a great deal of misinformation."

"Anyone that wishes to opt-out will be able to do so by visiting the Nametag site and filling out a brief form that will remain completely confidential," Tussy said. "Facial recognition technology is a reality. We understand that it carries the potential for the invasion of the privacy that Americans hold so dear. We are developing Nametag in a way that ensures the protection of those rights."