July 18, 2012, 6:00 PM — The U.S. Congress may need to pass legislation that limits the way government agencies and private companies use facial recognition technology to identify people, a U.S. senator said Wednesday.
The growing use of facial recognition technology raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns, said Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy subcommittee. Franken, during a subcommittee hearing, called on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Facebook to change the way they use facial recognition technology.
Biometric information, including facial features, is sensitive because it is unique and permanent, Franken said.
"I believe that we have a fundamental right to control our private information," he said. "You can change your password, you can get a new credit card, but you can't change your fingerprint, and you can't change your face, unless you go to a great deal of trouble."
There are currently no U.S. laws limiting government agencies or private companies from using facial recognition, witnesses said. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security already have huge biometric databases and are adding facial data, and Facebook users are uploading 300 million photos a day, said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"Many Americans don't even realize that they're already in a facial recognition database," Lynch said. "Facial recognition allows for convert, remote and mass capture of identification and images."
Facial recognition allows surveillance agencies to identify a person's friends and associates in addition to identifying them, she said. She called on Congress to pass a law to regulate the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies.
At the hearing, Franken focused on an FBI pilot program in Maryland, Michigan and Hawaii and on a Facebook feature that tags pictures using facial recognition. The FBI and Facebook can serve as good examples to other organizations if they handle facial recognition technology appropriately, he said.
He called on Facebook to turn off its tag suggestion feature by default, instead of having it on by default, as it has in the past. But Rob Sherman, manager of privacy and public policy for the social-networking site, resisted that suggestion. Facebook has suspended the feature while it reworks it, but will bring it back soon, Sherman said.
On by default is appropriate, "because Facebook itself is an opt-in experience," Sherman said. "People choose to be on Facebook because they want to share with each other."