Facial recognition technology poses privacy concerns

Tuesday - 1/3/2012, 9:32am EST

Amanda Koulousias, staff attorney, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the FTC

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By Michael O'Connell
@moconnellWFED
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

Facial recognition is becoming a bigger part of law enforcement and homeland security. It's also growing in the commercial sector, which has all kinds of privacy and ID misuse implications. That's why the Federal Trade Commission recently held a workshop to explore the issues.

Amanda Koulousias, a staff attorney in the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the FTC, spoke to The Federal Drive with Tom Temin Tuesday morning about the who, what and why of this gathering.

"One of the things that we learned at the workshop ... is what are the privacy concerns here and are the technologies currently being implemented in a way that raises additional privacy concerns or are they being implemented in a privacy-sensitive way," said Koulousias. "And since we don't fully know the answers to that, it's very hard to predict where we'll go."

Workshop participants included technologists, privacy and consumer advocates, academics and representatives of companies implementing facial recognition in their products. They discussed the privacy concerns relating to two separate technologies — facial detection and facial recognition.

One way that companies are now using facial detection is in commercial signs. "It's detecting the age range and the gender of the person who is looking at the sign," Koulousias said. "It can then target an ad to that person based on the demographic characteristics."

Facial recognition, on the other hand, is being used in various photo-tagging applications. Representatives from both Google and Facebook were among those at the workshop discussing how their social networks were using the technology.

"Facial recognition is also one of the things we talked about with possible future uses, which are numerous," Koulousias said. These include using facial recognition to unlock a cell phone or to detect a consumer's emotional reaction to an ad.

One of the workshop attendees, Prof. Alesandro Acquisti, spoke about a study he recently conducted to determine if facial recognition technology could be used to identify previously anonymous photos online, such as ones found on dating websites.

For many of the privacy and consumer advocates at the workshop, the main issue was whether consumers were aware of how facial recognition technology was being implemented and what degree of consumer control, if any, is built into these products.

"With facial detection in digital signs, is there a notice to consumers that the digital sign is using a camera that implements facial detection?" Koulousias asked. "Is there a notice if the ads are being targeted based on that?"

Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the agency has the ability to bring cases if an act is deemed unfair or deceptive. At this point, though, the agency is in an information-gathering mode. "We're really trying to figure out what's going on in this space, how it's being used, where it's going [and] bring everybody together to discuss these issues," Koulousias said.

The FTC is soliciting public comments on these technologies through Jan. 31 on its website. "Once we get the responses and see what the responses to our questions are, we will decide where to go from there," she said.