FTC: Companies should limit facial recognition in some cases

The agency releases a list of guidelines and best practices for the use of facial recognition technology

Web companies using facial recognition technology should avoid identifying anonymous images of consumers to someone who could not otherwise identify them, unless the companies have the consumers' consent, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report said.

Companies using facial recognition software should also obtain consumer consent before using images or any biometric data in a different way than they originally represented when they collected the data, the FTC said in guidelines for the use of facial recognition software released Monday.

Users of the emerging technology should also develop reasonable security protections for the information they collect and sound methods for determining when to keep and when to dispose of information, the FTC report said.

"Fortunately, the commercial use of facial recognition technologies is still young," the FTC report said. "This creates a unique opportunity to ensure that as this industry grows, it does so in a way that respects the privacy interests of consumers while preserving the beneficial uses the technology has to offer."

Facebook, when rolling out its facial recognition feature in mid-2011, said it would help users tag photos of friends and family members. Privacy groups complained that the company was collecting new personal data without asking users for permission.

The use of facial recognition by Web companies, including Facebook, and government agencies, including the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, has raised concerns from privacy advocates and some lawmakers. In July, U.S. Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said that legislation may be needed to limit the way government agencies and private companies use the technology.

In September, Facebook turned off its facial recognition feature for users in the European Union after privacy regulators there raised concerns.

A Facebook spokesman said the company was examining the FTC report, but didn't have an immediate comment.

The report recommends best practices for companies using or planning to use facial recognition software, the FTC report said. The best practices, where they go beyond existing legal requirements, are not intended to "serve as a template" for future FTC enforcement actions, the report said.

"If companies consider the issues of privacy by design, meaningful choice, and transparency at this early stage, it will help ensure that this industry develops in a way that encourages companies to offer innovative new benefits to consumers and respect their privacy interests," the report said.

The commission voted 4-1 to release the report, with Republican Commissioner Thomas Rosch dissenting. The report "goes too far, too soon," he wrote.

The report suggests companies should first get permission from consumers to use facial recognition software in a "broad swath of contexts," when opt-in permission may not be necessary, he added.

"I disagree with the adoption of 'best practices' on the ground that facial recognition may be misused," Rosch wrote. "There is nothing to establish that this misconduct has occurred or even that it is likely to occur in the near future."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationU.S. Federal Trade CommissionregulationsecurityAl FrankengovernmentThomas RoschinternetprivacyFacebook

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