Sen. Franken concerned about facial recognition apps and privacy

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2014 - 5:28 AM

U.S. Sen. Al Franken is demanding answers from the makers of an app who claim it can scan strangers’ faces and pull up information about them.

The ­makers of NameTag say it can use the camera on Google Glass — a visor-like, wearable computer — to scan people’s faces and then look for matches online, including on popular dating sites. Franken expressed concern that the app could allow users to identify a person’s name, photos, relationships and other information without their consent or knowledge.

Franken sent a letter to the app creator, urging him to delay its release.

“There can be safety in anonymity, and for many people, letting a stranger identify them by name is a threat to that safety,” wrote Franken, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

“It is easy to envision how this technology could facilitate harassment, stalking and other threats to personal security. Your company has an obligation to protect users from these threats.”

Because of Google’s ban on facial-recognition technology, NameTag isn’t an officially sanctioned app. But Franken fears app users could hack the Glass device, allowing them to bypass Google’s ban.

FacialNetwork.com, which makes the app, says it will allow people to decide whether their name and information are displayed. The app also will allow users to screen service providers who enter their homes and scan people against a database of registered sex offenders, said its creator, Kevin Alan Tussy.

“Facial recognition technology is a reality,” Tussy said in a statement. “We understand that it carries the potential for invasion of privacy that Americans hold so dear. We are developing NameTag in a way that ensures the protection of those rights.”

In a statement issued in December, Tussy said: “We will even allow users to have one profile that is seen during business hours and another that is only seen in social situations. NameTag can make the big, anonymous world we live in as friendly as a small town.”

Prompted in part by Franken’s concerns, a U.S. Commerce Department agency is undertaking a study of the privacy risks of facial recognition technology.

The department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration wrapped up a similar process last year aimed at increasing transparency around how mobile apps collect and use data from users.

The process will bring together tech companies and privacy advocates to craft a set of privacy-enhancing guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology.

“No specific federal law governs this technology, so early adopter companies such as yours will play a vital role in determining the extent to which privacy and personal safety are protected,” Franken wrote to FacialNetwork.com.

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