What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held a hearing on the use of facial recognition technology. This was an important hearing that brought together law enforcement personnel, consumer protection officials, privacy advocates, and industry actors to examine the advent of facial recognition technology and its uses by government and business entities.

Like geolocation and tracking cookies, facial recognition technology can offer benefits to industry, government, and even private citizens. But like these other technologies, facial recognition raises many questions about the impact of this technology on Americans’ privacy. Each of us may feel differently about the costs and benefits associated with this technology, and each of us likely has different levels of comfort about technology that tracks us through our phones, our internet use, or our faces.

That’s why I believe that the individual should have choices—to decide whether he or she wishes to be tracked. I’m a supporter of legislation that would require companies to obtain specific opt-in, affirmative consent from users before tracking their browsing history or collecting geolocation information from them. I believe a similar approach is suitable for the use of facial recognition technology.

The use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement raises important questions about how this technology will impact Americans’ civil liberties and expectations of privacy. For example, although facial recognition technology may be used by law enforcement and government agencies to prevent the issuance of fraudulent passports and drivers licenses, it may also be used to track and profile individuals exercising their First Amendment rights by attending a political rally or protest. In my view, that use of this technology is inappropriate and I will work with my colleagues to ensure that it does not abridge Americans’ civil liberties.

I am also very concerned about how businesses and social networking services may collect, use, and share this information. Will a social networking site that uses facial recognition technology to tag friends in photos allow third-party apps to access this face data or create its own data sets from your pictures? Will a store that uses facial recognition technology to identify shoppers check that information against other consumer data to predict customers’ income levels and direct them toward or away from certain products?

Facebook has recently suggested that it is considering allowing children under 13 to create accounts on Facebook. At the hearing, I asked Facebook’s representative to commit to not using facial recognition technology on children who use Facebook.