As social media firms and law enforcement agencies increasingly use facial recognition technology to facilitate public and online service, privacy issues surrounding the commercial apps, at least, are raising eyebrows in Congress.
On Wednesday, Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, requested a report from the Federal Trade Commission on the security implications of facial recognition technology. He anticipates the recommendations will help the committee update legislation regulating online privacy.
The agency is holding a Dec. 8 workshop where businesses and the public are expected to tackle issues such as whether consent should be required from individuals before their images are matched and what benefits the science might offer.
"As the 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 wrote. "I ask that the commission provide a report to the [committee] following the workshop, and that this report include potential legislative approaches to protect consumer privacy as this technology proliferates." He wants recommendations by Feb. 8, 2012, according to the letter.
Meanwhile, the FBI expects to activate a nationwide facial recognition service for authorities in select states by January 2012. Officials will be able to upload a picture of an unknown person and receive a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo. The tool will search among the 10 million images stored in the FBI's biometric identification system for suggestions, but will not provide a direct match.
In Wednesday's letter, Rockefeller asked whether there should be special protections for the use of facial recognition on or by young people, among other things.
Current law bars certain online companies from collecting personal data from children under age 13 without parental consent. FTC plans to change the way it enforces the law -- known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act -- to keep pace with rapid advances in technology. A proposed rule issued last month would broaden protections to ensure parents were notified and given the chance to decide whether they want their children to be able to upload their images.
"Given the prevalence and popularity of posting photos, videos and audio files online, the commission has reevaluated the privacy and safety implications of such practices as they pertain to children," the draft regulation stated. It added that, "facial recognition technology can be used to further identify persons depicted in photos."
On Wednesday, FTC spokeswoman Claudia B. Farrell said, "Following the workshop, we will report back to Chairman Rockefeller and his committee on our conclusions and any recommendations."
Rockefeller's letter noted Facebook's "Tag Suggestions" feature "automatically suggests names of friends in photos as they are uploaded."
Facebook officials said Wednesday they looked forward to participating in the workshop. "Tag Suggestions are only made to people when they add new photos to the site, and only friends are suggested," said Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager for public policy communications.
The default on Facebook is to search for matches among all contact names, but if people do not want their names suggested to friends, they can disable the feature.
Given that millions of people have used the tool to add hundreds of millions of tags since December 2010 "and the fact that we've had few user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful," Noyes said. "For those who don't, we made turning off Tag Suggestions easy and explained how to do so on our blog, in our Help Center and within the interface."
Apple's iPhoto organizer also uses facial recognition to match a user's new pictures with stored photos the user has already tagged with a name. The desktop version of Google's Picasa photo software ties together similar-looking faces that users have previously nicknamed in their offline photo albums. Google spokesman Chris Gaither said the firm plans to speak at the FTC event.
"Protecting children and teens is something we think about very seriously with all our products," Gaither said.
Rockefeller said he recognizes that these programs display only the names of matches in the users' contacts, but he pointed out that the technology could one day break that boundary. He cited the example of a Google prototype that would have allowed a user to scan the entire Internet for the identity of someone appearing in a photo. The search firm never offered the feature, due to privacy concerns, he said.
The senator's letter cited a Los Angeles Times article in which Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was quoted as saying, "As far as I know, it's the only technology that Google built and after looking at it, we decided to stop . . . people could use this stuff in a very, very bad way as well as in a good way."