Facial recognition, arguably, is the technology that most threatens individual privacy online.
It's on the mind of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. Rockefeller, in a letter released Thursday to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, asked for an FTC report on the growing use of facial recognition technology, what it means for consumers and whether it means less privacy for Internet users. In his letter, Rockefeller wrote:
"As in many fast growing and changing sectors, public policy has not kept pace with the development of this sort of technology. The privacy concerns are evident. As the Commerce Committee considers privacy legislation in the future, we will need to understand the capabilities of this technology as well as the privacy and security concerns raised by their development."
Rockefeller's concern is justifiable. As he points out, companies of the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google have experimented with facial recognition biometrics in products and services they offer.
How threatening is facial recognition technology to individual privacy? I put that question to Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a not-for-profit organization promoting privacy rights (see Facial Biometrics Pose Privacy Woes). As an example, Givens cited a Carnegie Mellon University study in which using only a photo of a person's face and information publicly available online, researcher identified the person's birth date, personal interests and Social Security number. Givens found that astounding:
"There are many places where you can get a person's birth date; in fact, that's public information. But being able to link it to a Social Security number as well as personal interest is another matter entirely, that takes it to an all new level."
The FTC seems to wonder, too, exactly what facial recognition can and cannot do, and how that could benefit individuals as well as erode privacy. The commission will hold a workshop on facial recognition technology in Washington on Dec. 8, and among the questions to be addressed at the workshop:
- What are the privacy and security concerns surrounding the adoption of the technology; for example, have consumers consented to the collection and use of their images?
- What legal protections exist for consumers regarding the use of the technology, in the United States and internationally?
- What consumer protections should be provided?
Facial recognition technology could prove to be an effective way to authenticate individuals seeking entry to secured buildings or databases storing sensitive information, and there are numerous other benefits to it such as its use to help identify criminals and terrorists. But Rockefeller and the FTC are right in raising privacy concerns and the potential abuses facial recognition technology presents.