Tue, Dec 17, 2013 - Page 15 News List

US plans voluntary code on firms’ ‘faceprint’ plans


Facebook Inc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc and other companies planning to use facial-recognition scans for security or tailored sales pitches will help write rules for how images and online profiles can be used.

The US Department of Commerce is to start meeting with industry and privacy advocates in February next year 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,” Mallory Duncan, senior vice president of the Washington-based US National Retail Federation Inc, said in a telephone interview. “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 the UK, Tesco PLC is installing face-scanning technology at its gasoline stations to determine customers’ ages and gender so that 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 photograph databases.

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 Wal-Mart, oppose regulations or laws they say might cripple an emerging market estimated to reach US$6.5 billion by 2018 by MarketsandMarkets, a Dallas research company.

Facial detection technology uses a mathematical formula to create a digital template of a person’s face, otherwise known as a faceprint. It underlies one of the more popular Internet activities -- tagging yourself and others in photographs uploaded to social media sites like Facebook or within photograph 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, Tennessee, 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 local businesses when they walk in or by. The application then delivers customized advertising deals to their smartphones.

The US Commerce Department, which is to 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 department 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 Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, said in an e-mailed statement. Facebook has almost 1.2 billion users and does not disclose how many faceprints it has assembled.

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said the Cupertino, California-based company declined to comment.

Wal-Mart does not use facial recognition in its stores, but is looking into the technology primarily for security purposes, company spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said in a telephone interview. The company will be represented by the retail federation at the Commerce department talks.

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