Consumer Groups Opt Out of Facial Recognition Talks

Say Process Won’t Produce Adequate Protections

WASHINGTON — Consumer groups are pulling out of a National Telecommunications & Information Administration-led multi-stakeholder process to come up with a voluntary code of conduct on facial recognition technology, saying they don't see a way that the process will result in adequate protections.

The groups are particularly concerned with what they see as an inability of industry stakeholders to agree to any variation on an opt-in model, but also say their withdrawal should be taken as a signal to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the multi-stakeholder process in general.

According to a letter to the NTIA dated Tuesday (June 13), the groups spelled out their disaffection with the meetings.

"At this point, we do not believe that the NTIA process is likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offers adequate protections for the use of facial recognition technology,” the groups wrote. “We are convinced that in many contexts, facial recognition of consumers should only occur when an individual has affirmatively decided to allow it to occur. In recent NTIA meetings however, industry stakeholders were unable to agree on any concrete scenario where companies should employ facial recognition only with a consumer’s permission."

The NTIA has been leading a series of stakeholder meetings to try and come up with voluntary guidelines to enforce elements of the Obama Administration's privacy bill of rights, including mobile apps and facial recognition, to mixed reviews. The administration has also proposed legislation to put some teeth into the bill of rights, but that is a tough ask in a Republican-controlled Congress.

According to Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) executive director Jeff Chester, last week's stakeholder meeting was the "digital straw that broke the proverbial camel privacy back" after industry players would not agree to any opt-in scenarios, he said. Chester has described the multi-stakeholder process under the administration-led process as a lobbyist-dominated forum.

Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology, agreed that recalcitrance on any opt-in model was the key issue. He said that after consumer groups proposed, and industry players could not agree on, a general opt-in guideline, with exceptions, it offered an even narrower guideline, but industry members still could not agree.

"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 groups said in a letter to the NTIA. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise. The position that companies never need to ask permission to use biometric identification is at odds with consumer expectations, current industry practices, as well as existing state law."

"We think consumers deserve more than they can get out of this process," Bedoya said.

Without consumer groups, the process could conceivably continue, but the optics would clearly not be good. But Bedoya said it was about more than optics. It is supposed to be a multistakeholder process, he said, adding, “I don't think there is a ‘multi’ there if the consumer groups pull out.”

 At press time, the groups pulling out, in addition to CDD and the Center on Privacy and Technology, were the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Sense Media, Center for Democracy & Technology, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumer Action.