Privacy Advocates Abandon Facial Recognition Policy Talks In Protest

Facial recognition still kind of sounds like science fiction, but is a tech reality. It is, however, still a fairly new and unregulated reality — nobody quite knows how to handle it. So the Commerce Department brought together privacy advocates and industry representatives to hammer out a new code of conduct… and it is not going well. In fact, several of the advocates claim, the process is so broken that it can’t be fixed, and they are walking out.

Advocates from the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Digital Democracy, the ACLU, the EFF, Common Sense Media, Consumer Action, and Consumer Watchdog all signed onto an open letter (PDF) explaining their reasons for abandoning the NTIA (a division of the Commerce Department) meetings.

“We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy,” the advocates explain. “People have the right to control who gets their sensitive information, and how that information is shared. … At this point, we do not believe that the NTIA process is likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offers adequate protections for the use of facial recognition technology.”

“We have participated in this process in good faith for 16 months,” the advocates write, but industry is refusing to meet in the middle or in fact make any concessions at all. “In recent NTIA meetings,” the letter says, “industry stakeholders were unable to agree on any concrete scenario where companies should employ facial recognition only with a consumer’s permission. … The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law.”

The advocates do not mean to give up on seeking better standards for the use of facial recognition tech, but are withdrawing from the current process to “signal the need to reevaluate the effectiveness of multistakeholder processes.”

Advocates are concerned because facial recognition is not the wave of the future, but of the present. The tech is already seeing use in all kinds of platforms, from the harmlessly gimmicky to the creepily invasive.

For example, users of social media are by now familiar with Facebook’s tagging suggestions for photos. Google currently allows for the same and has more apps relying on face analysis on tap for the future. The NSA has used facial recognition technology in its widely controversial intelligence-gathering.

In individual statements, some of the signatory advocates spoke much more strongly about how the process had derailed.

“This should be a wake-up call to Americans: Industry lobbyists are choking off Washington’s ability to protect consumer privacy,” said a statement from Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law.

Privacy Advocates Walk Out in Protest Over U.S. Facial-Recognition Code of Conduct [The Intercept]

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