Privacy and Consumer Advocates Leave Administration’s “Multistakeholder” Negotiations on Facial Recognition

Today, the groups participating in the Obama Administration’s so-called multi-stakeholder negotiations to develop a self-regulatory “code of conduct” on facial recognition and privacy sent a letter (attached) to the Commerce Department explaining why they would no longer participate in the process. As CDD has said from the start, the approach the Administration embraced to protect consumers’ rights to their personal information was flawed. It relied on the data collection and digital marketing industry to support significant new policies that would empower individuals to make decisions about how their information can be collected and used. Right now, of course, it’s individual companies and industry-wide data gathering practices that have left Americans with barely any privacy. For the industry—including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft—what’s foremost in their political agenda is preserving their right to use all our personal information without constraint. It never made sense to expect industry to turn away from business practices that reap billions of dollars. What was needed at the outset was an independent agency such as the Federal Trade Commission proposing tough new rules—and an administration willing to fight for the interests of the public. The multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance cannot work when it involves challenging the economic (or political) interests of the digital industry and its partners. Our facial data is sensitive, personal information. Before companies can gather it—let alone use it—a person must have at a minimum full knowledge on how it will be used and give meaningful prior consent. None of the companies or industry trade associations participating in the Commerce Department-led initiative is willing to support opt-in for facial recognition. That’s because they are increasingly using facial recognition technologies to track and target people in commercial settings, adding our face and other biometric data to the vast amounts of information they now routinely gather. The withdrawal by the consumer and privacy groups should wake up the Obama Administration—it must embrace a new ethics-based approach to how it develops consumer privacy safeguards. Relying on the digital foxes (the data industry) to develop rules on data gathering and use will actually lead to the further erosion of our privacy and consumer protections. This failure by the White House on privacy underscores why the EU must oppose U.S. attempts to weaken its own civil rights-based approach to data protection, especially through the TTIP trade deal.