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Privacy advocates quit facial-recognition group in protest

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Ken Lund / Flickr

Starting in February of last year, privacy advocates joined with marketing and retail industry leaders to look for common ground on consumer surveillance. The goal was to produce a voluntary code of conduct for companies using facial recognition in their business, overseen by the Department of Commerce. Now, that group is splintering apart, with all nine privacy advocates withdrawing from the proceedings in protest, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Center for Democracy and Technology.

At midnight Monday night, the group issued a statement explaining the withdrawal, saying, "people deserve more protection than they are likely to get in this forum." The sticking point seems to have been whether citizens would have to explicitly consent to being tracked by the systems. "At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement," the statement reads. The marketing industry representatives seem to have disagreed with that premise, making it impossible for the groups to come together.

"People should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies... are tracking their every movement."

"Many leading companies only use facial recognition if they’ve gotten a consumer’s permission. State law requires consumer consent," said Alvaro Bedoya, director of Georgetown's Center on Privacy and Technology and one of the nine advocates withdrawing from the process. "Despite all of this, industry associations have pushed for a world where companies can use facial recognition on you whenever they want – no matter what you say."

In-store tracking has become an increasingly lucrative tool for marketers, whether it's performed through personal monitoring or more sophisticated means. In some cases, those marketers have often avoided facial recognition systems because of the privacy concerns, but the industry's inherent secrecy makes it difficult to tell when such systems are being deployed. Many in the industry saw a voluntary code of conduct as an easy compromise to enforce transparency and avoid privacy concerns down the road. Based on today's withdrawal, it seems unlikely that compromise will happen any time soon. "If you are a consumer, and you want better privacy laws, you should call your state legislator and head to your state capitol," Bedoya says. "Just don’t come to Washington, DC."