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Policing the Wide, Wild New World of Biometrics

Progress in the world of biometrics should cause us all to shudder. Cameras in public locations can now employ facial recognition to direct advertising to us based upon an assessment of our age, sex, and other characteristics. Cameras can determine our reaction to and engagement in video games and movies. It sounds a bit like a world composed of two-way mirrors. But instead of shuddering, we sometimes knowingly, sometimes carelessly, support the technology – and other data collection practices – through our online and commercial activities.

How many of us constantly update and tag our Facebook pages with pictures of us and our loved ones and where we’ve been? How many take advantage of product/service discounts by scanning our smart phones and “liking” products on Facebook? How many of us are now buying into dating apps and social apps that are based on facial recognition technology? The fact is that much of our data can be, and is being, collected and we consumers (especially in the United States) seem to have no problem with it, even volunteering for it.

Perhaps fortunately, some regulators are stepping in and keeping a watchful eye on these developments and looking for ways to curb the potentially nefarious use of consumer data. The FTC and its Division of Privacy and Identity Protection recently published its list of best practices for companies who use facial recognition technologies. The publication, Facing Facts: Best Practices for Common Uses of Facial Recognition Technologies, underlines important concerns about being able to identify anonymous individuals in public and about attendant security breaches such as hacking.

The FTC’s proposed best practices include the following:

  • Companies should maintain reasonable data security protections to prevent unauthorized information “scraping” of consumer images and biometric data.
  • Companies should maintain appropriate retention and disposal practices.
  • Companies should consider the sensitivity of information when developing facial recognition products and services, e.g., they should avoid placing signs in sensitive areas, such as bathrooms, locker rooms, health care facilities, or places where children congregate.
  • Companies using digital signs capable of demographic detection should provide clear notice to consumers that the technologies are in use, before consumers come into contact with the signs.
  • Social networks should provide users with clear notice – outside of a privacy policy – about how the feature works, what data it collects, and how it will use the data.
  • Social networks should provide consumers with (1) an easy-to-find, meaningful choice not to have their biometric data collected and used for facial recognition; and (2) the ability to turn off the feature at any time and delete any biometric data previously collected.
  • Companies should obtain a consumer’s affirmative express consent before using a consumer’s image or any biometric data in a materially different manner than they represented when they collected the data.
  • Companies should not use facial recognition to identify anonymous images of a consumer to someone who could not otherwise identify him or her, without obtaining the consumer’s affirmative express consent.

The guidelines come only a few months after the FTC’s March 2012 Privacy Report (“Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations For Businesses and Policymakers”) and are a logical follow-on to the report. They incorporate the Privacy Report’s core principles: privacy by design, simplified consumer choice, and transparency. These principles and guidelines are a step in the direction of responsible data collection and responsible technological advancements.

We should point out that neither the Privacy Report nor the Best Practices in Facial Recognition are binding or enforceable as they do not fall under FTC’s legal authority. And the FTC prominently makes this disclaimer, noting that the guidelines are merely recommendations without the force of law. It is clear, however, that the FTC is appropriately preparing to assume enforcement authority, should Congress pursue privacy legislation (something the FTC recommends in the Privacy Report). That is obvious from the mere fact that the agency has established a Privacy and Identity Protection Division.

Companies that are developing or seeking to employ biometrics – or that employ other data collection practices – would be well advised to pay attention to the FTC’s recommendations. The guidelines provide insight into how an enforcement authority is likely to approach biometrics and other data collection practices. The guidelines also provide a framework for responsible use of consumer data. And even though consumers currently seem passive or dismissive about biometrics and data collection, it would take just one scandal or highly publicized incident for public opinion to change. Companies will benefit in the long run by building good will among consumers.

© 2012 Ifrah PLLC

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About this Author

Associate

From federal and state enforcement actions to government contract work, Nicole has spent most of her time as a lawyer representing clients on the opposite side of the table of government regulators and prosecutors. She has worked on matters involving the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, Offices of Inspector General of several federal agencies, and Attorneys General of numerous states. Nicole also has worked on many matters in which clients have proactively opposed government action – before administrative as well as judicial bodies. Where...

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