Though facial recognition technology that tracks eyeballs or connects users of social networking sites is in its infancy, the pioneering digital advance is becoming part of the ongoing privacy debate in Washington. Hoping to plan ahead before the fast-evolving technology becomes as widespread as a "like" button, the Federal Trade Commission Monday released a staff report recommending how to protect consumer privacy in light of the coming biometric revolution.
The relatively brief 21-page report, Facing Facts: Best Practices for Common Uses of Facial Recognition Technologies, was based on a workshop the agency held last December and more than 80 filed comments.
Formerly the imaginings of sci-fi authors and futurists, facial recognition became a real issue in Washington last summer when privacy advocates expressed alarm over Facebook's tagging feature, which recognized people posted in photos and made suggestions for identifying them by name in other photos. In the United States, several congressional leaders suggested that the feature be made opt-in, and the European Union last month ordered Facebook to drop the technology until tightening its privacy controls.
The FTC report offers Facebook and other companies a few strong suggestions: companies should design their services with consumer privacy in mind, develop reasonable security protections and policies for the information collected, and consider the sensitivity of the information. For example, digital signs that gather information should also consider the environment, especially in places where children congregate.
The report also suggested that consumers be given clear notice that the technology is being used before they encounter it, whether on a digital sign or in a social network. For social networks, the FTC recommends that consumers should be given an "easy choice" to bar having their biometric data collected for facial recognition and the option to delete the feature and their photos.
In some cases, the FTC also recommended that companies obtain consent from consumers before collecting or using data from facial images.
The FTC voted 4-1 to issue the report, with commissioner J. Thomas Rosch (R) dissenting. Although the agency was careful to note that its recommendations do not carry the force of law, Rosch wrote that he thought the FTC went too far, assuming harms and misuse of the technology before substantiating any problems.
"I do not believe that such far-reaching conclusions and recommendations can be justified at this time," Rosch wrote. "There is no support at all in the staff report for them, much less the kind of rigorous cost-benefit analysis that should be conducted before the commission embraces such recommendations."