FTC Outlines Best Practices for Commercial Facial Recognition Technology (Bonus: Explicit Mention of ‘Minority Report’)

As facial recognition technology begins to look like something that’s actually quite useful and powerful, the FTC is trying to stay out in front of it by developing a set of best practices for commercial applications.

Why is the FTC so proactive about addressing facial recognition technology? This passage from the agency’s Facing Facts: Best Practices for Common Uses of Facial Recognition Technologies report sums it up fairly well:

In the most advanced application, companies can use the technology to compare individuals’ facial characteristics across different images in order to identify them. In this application, an image of an individual is matched with another image of the same individual. If the face in either of the two images is identified – that is, the name of the individual is known – then, in addition to being able to demonstrate a match between two faces, the technology can be used to identify previously anonymous faces.

That type of capability is essentially a plot point in the 2002 film “Minority Report”, which the FTC report references at the outset. Further, the report accurately points out that thanks to photo sharing sites, social networking, and tagging, we’re already handing over a great deal of the data necessary to implement something like this.

FTC report

After studying this issue for almost a year, the FTC has a list of best practices, which include “privacy by design”, wherein companies using facial recognition technology need to implement security around telling items such as images of people and biometrics, use appropriate retention and disposal practices of such data, and be careful where to place facial recognition products. (For example, a bathroom or playground is not a great place for that kind of tool.)

The FTC also believes that consumers should have an easy way of knowing whether a given digital sign or other marketing product is engaging in facial recognition, and social networks using it need a simple a way to opt out and delete data.

Further, the FTC sees two scenarios where companies must acquire a consumer’s explicit consent before collecting data: one is any time the company wishes to use an image or data “derived from that image in a materially different manner than they represented when they collected the data”, and the other concerns preventing companies from using the technology to help someone identify a stranger, which raises serious and obvious privacy concerns.

The FTC report boils the above down into three short and sweet principles:

1. Privacy by Design: Companies should build in privacy at every stage of product development.
2. Simplified Consumer Choice: For practices that are not consistent with the context of a transaction or a consumer’s relationship with a business, companies should provide consumers with choices at a relevant time and context.
3. Transparency: Companies should make information collection and use practices transparent.

Kudos to the FTC for being proactive about addressing the potential problems that may arise from a developing technology.