Al Franken gives thumbs-down to facial recognition tech

During a Senate hearing, the U.S. senator voiced unease about facial recognition software used by Facebook saying it infringes on users' privacy and could lead to abuse by the police.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) Senator Al Franken

Minnesota Senator Al Franken is concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology spurred by companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google. He believes that once mainstreamed, not only is privacy curbed but also law enforcement officials could potentially abuse the technology to the detriment of U.S. residents.

In a Senate hearing on facial recognition technology today, Franken, who is the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, questioned the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, and Facebook about their use of this computer science, according to The Verge.

Facebook automatically uses facial recognition software in its photo-tagging feature, which it rolled out last year. It's been a hot button issue since its inception; in fact, the European Union decided last year to launch an investigation into whether this feature violates European privacy regulations.

In the hearing today, Franken raised concerns that the feature should be opt-in rather than automatic, according to The Verge. Questioning Facebook's manager of privacy and public policy, Rob Sherman, Franken noted that the social network does not mention the feature in its privacy settings and turning it off is complicated.

"In terms of implementing choice throughout our site, we do a number of options," Sherman responded, according to The Verge. "We think [opt-in for tagging] is the appropriate choice because Facebook is an opt-in experience. People join Facebook because they want to share with each other."

Franken also raised questions about the FBI's use of facial recognition software. The law enforcement agency's technology "could be abused to identify protesters at rallies, and target them for selective jailing," he said, according to The Verge. "Facial recognition creates acute privacy concerns that fingerprints do not." The FBI representative responded that facial recognition is used only for lawful "criminal justice purposes."

According to a report from July 2011, it's not just the FBI employing facial recognition software -- around 40 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are attempting to use mobile facial recognition technology to identify individuals. The software they are using was created by Apple and works on an iPhone; supposedly an Android version is also being developed.

Law enforcement officials using facial recognition technology on an iPhone probably only fuels Franken's unease. And he seems to be pointing to tech companies as sharing the culpability in any forthcoming privacy infringement. In March, he gave a speech to the American Bar Association about privacy implications when tech firms like Facebook and Google become unaccountable.

"When a company is able to establish a dominant market position, consumers lose meaningful choices," he said. "The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy."