A bit of a firestorm has erupted in the U.S. over how to go about creating laws surrounding the use of facial recognition technology after nine consumer advocate, privacy, and civil liberty groups walked away from talks with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) this week. The conflict highlights the huge gap in the U.S. between the development of technologies and their adequate regulation.
The advocates published a letter detailing why they pulled themselves from talks; for the most part, they seemed to come to an impasse with industry executives:
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 groups reported that their work for the past 16 months has been basically fruitless, and that they do not see an agreement as a possibility with the current position of the NTIA and industry members. The New York Times quotes Juliana Gruenwald, an N.T.I.A spokeswoman, as she vocalized her disappointment in this recent turn of events:
The process is the strongest when all interested parties participate and are willing to engage on all issues… [The agency] will continue to facilitate meetings on this topic for those stakeholders who want to participate.
This debate is a classic example of government being too slow to adequately legislate new technologies. When it comes to advancing tech, government is consistently playing catch-up, trying to create laws that govern tech that is already well on its way to mainstream use. Indeed, facial recognition technology has been around for some time. Facebook has been using it in multiple aspects of its service, and most recently launched a feature dubbed Moments which scans a user’s camera roll for the all the photos featuring a friend’s face, then bundles them to share with that friend.
Multiple other tech giants like Google and Microsoft have already designed products that use facial recognition technology. Google Glass has facial recognition capabilities and Microsoft has debuted recognition software that can purportedly guess a user’s age. The lack of federal laws surrounding such technology’s use has essentially been a green light for the tech world thus far — and has naturally heightened the worries of privacy advocates nationwide. What is the more disturbing item here for those advocates is the fact that any regulation at this point would almost be too late. It is likely that consumers in the U.S. have been largely unaware that face recognition technology has been integrated into their services and hardware for some time now, and has been identifying them without consent.
While the use of biometric technology to aid the law enforcement, criminal, and justice systems is widely thought to be a boon for those branches, its integration into consumer technology is clearly being met with more backlash. And the back-and-forth about its regulation will likely be on the table for the foreseeable future.