The U.S. Department of Commerce will start meeting with industry and privacy advocates in February to draft a voluntary code of conduct for using facial-recognition products, according to a public notice. The draft will ready by June.
“We are very skeptical about stomping on technology in the cradle,” said Mallory Duncan, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation. “It’s not a good idea to develop codes or laws that freeze technology before you have the ability of determining what it’s capable of achieving.”
In Britain, Tesco PLC is installing face-scanning technology at its gasoline stations to determine customers’ ages and gender so tailored advertisements can be delivered to them on screens at checkouts. Retailers may be able to compare customers’ images from security cameras with law enforcement photo databases.
Facebook, Apple and other Internet companies have been trying to restore consumer confidence that they protect privacy amid an international backlash over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has collected data on their users.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy groups want laws – not voluntary standards – to prevent face scans from being used for spying and tracking.
Trade groups like the retail federation, which represents Walmart, oppose regulations or laws that they say might cripple an emerging market estimated to reach $6.5 billion by 2018 by MarketsandMarkets, a facial-detection technology that uses a mathematical formula to create a digital template of a person’s face, otherwise known as a face-print. It underlies one of the more popular Internet activities – tagging yourself and others in photos uploaded to social media sites like Facebook or within photo-management applications such as Apple’s iPhoto.
Kiosks have been developed that can scan a person’s face at a shopping mall to determine gender or age for tailored sales pitches, Duncan said.
An advertising and technology agency in Nashville called Redpepper is testing an Internet application in which users agree to give access to their Facebook profiles and have their faces scanned by cameras at businesses when they walk in or by. The application then delivers customized advertising deals to their smartphones.
Meanwhile, facial scans are becoming more common to establish identity for secure access to buildings or devices. Apple received a patent Dec. 3 for a system to use a facial scan to unlock an iPhone or computer.
The U.S. Commerce Department, which will start the discussions in February, says the code of conduct will apply only to commercial use, not to how law enforcement or spy agencies may use it.
The Commerce discussions “can provide meaningful privacy protections without running the risk of legislation that becomes outdated as technology evolves and limits people’s ability to use online services,” Rob Sherman, policy manager for Facebook, said in an e-mailed statement. Facebook has almost 1.2 billion users and doesn’t disclose how many face-prints it has assembled.
Kristin Huguet, an Apple spokeswoman, said the company declined to comment.
Walmart doesn’t use facial recognition in its stores but is looking into the technology primarily for security purposes, said Brooke Buchanan, a company spokeswoman.
Voluntary standards written primarily by companies with a business stake in using facial recognition won’t ensure adequate protection of people’s privacy, such as preventing facial scans of people without their knowledge, said Christopher Calabrese, an ACLU lawyer in Washington.
“One of the most serious concerns about facial recognition is it allows secret surveillance at a distance,” he said. “Suddenly, you’re really not anonymous in public anymore.”