Consumer Groups Back Out of Federal Talks on Face Recognition

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A central component of President Obama’s effort to give consumers more control over how companies collect and share their most sensitive personal details has run aground.

Nine civil liberties and consumer advocate groups announced early Tuesday morning that they were withdrawing from talks with trade associations over how to write guidelines for the fair commercial use of face recognition technology for consumers.

In the last 16 months, the two sides had been meeting periodically under the auspices of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department. But the privacy advocates said they were giving up on talks because they could not achieve what they consider minimum rights for consumers — the idea that companies should seek and obtain permission before employing face recognition to identify individual people on the street.

“At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement — and identifying them by name — using facial recognition technology,” the privacy and consumer groups said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise.”

The advocates included: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Democracy & Technology; Center for Digital Democracy; Alvaro M. Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center; Consumer Action; Consumer Federation of America; Consumer Watchdog; Common Sense Media; and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Juliana Gruenwald, an N.T.I.A spokeswoman, said the telecommunications agency was disappointed that some participants had pulled out of the face recognition discussions.

“The process is the strongest when all interested parties participate and are willing to engage on all issues,” Ms. Gruenwald wrote in an email. The agency, she added, “will continue to facilitate meetings on this topic for those stakeholders who want to participate.”

With or without the consumer advocates, the participants intend to continue trying to develop a workable code of conduct for facial recognition privacy, said Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, an e-commerce trade association.

​ “We think we can reach consensus on transparency, notice, data security and giving users meaningful control over the sharing of their facial recognition information with anyone who otherwise would not have access,” Mr. Szabo said in an email.

In 2012, the Obama administration published a plan for a consumer privacy bill of rights. Among other things, the report called for the Commerce Department to convene a series of “multi-stakeholder processes” in which trade and advocacy groups were to create industry codes of conduct for the use of drones, data-mining by mobile apps and other consumer-tracking technologies.

The withdrawal on Tuesday puts the viability of these multiparticipant negotiations into question.

“I would say that no one’s privacy is better off as a result,” Mr. Bedoya of the Center on Privacy & Technology said.

Face recognition is a subset of biometrics, a technology that involves recording and analyzing people’s unique physiological characteristics, like their fingerprint ridges or facial features, to learn or confirm their identities. Face recognition technology works by scanning a photo or video still of an unknown face and comparing its unique topography against a facial-scan database of people whose names are already known.

Because the technology can be used covertly, civil liberties advocates say its popularization has the potential to undermine people’s ability to conduct their personal business anonymously in stores, hotels and other public spaces. That is one reason that Texas and Illinois have passed state laws requiring companies to notify people and obtain their permission before taking facial scans or sharing their biometric information.

Mr. Bedoya said consumer advocates were troubled by the possibility that the federally convened face recognition discussions could end up endorsing an industry code of conduct that undermined those state laws.

“The message sent is clear,” he said in an email. “If you are a consumer, and you want better privacy laws, you should call your state legislator and head to your state capitol. Just don’t come to Washington, D.C.”

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