Facial recognition software is increasingly being used by both the public and law enforcement. But while the benefits, such as assisting police and federal agencies to keep criminals off the streets, are obvious, at least one member of Congress is concerned about privacy ramifications from the rapidly advancing technology.

According to various news reports, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday, Oct. 19, for a report on the security impacts of facial recognition technology. Rockefeller, who is the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asked for the FTC’s recommendations by Feb. 9, 2012.

“As in many fast growing and changing sectors, public policy has not kept pace with the development of this sort of technology,” Rockefeller wrote in a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “The privacy concerns are evident. As the Commerce Committee considers privacy legislation in the future, we will need to understand the capabilities of this technology as well as the privacy and security concerns raised by their development.”

Rockefeller’s request is timely, as the FTC is holding a free workshop on Dec. 8 to address facial recognition technology concerns and privacy implications. The workshop will feature guests from consumer protection organizations, academics and business as well as industry representatives and privacy professionals.

Nextgov’s Aliya Sternstein reported that the FBI plans to launch a nationwide facial recognition service for law enforcement agencies in various states by January 2012. If the system works as described, authorized personnel will be able to upload a photo of a person and receive a list of mug shots ranked by how similar the features of the person are to those in the photo.

Although the tool won’t provide an exact match, it will pull up potential hits from the FBI’s biometric identification system.

Sean Mullin, CEO of BI2 Technologies, which created the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS) device that connects to a smartphone and includes facial recognition technology, said he applauds Rockefeller’s push to clarify what potential impacts the facial scan advancements might have in regard to privacy and safety.

“It’s very important at the federal level because of the complexity of the privacy issues that can potentially result from this technology that the federal government takes a very careful look at it,” Mullin said regarding facial recognition.

“Particularly with the presumption of privacy in the public space, whether it is video cameras on toll booths or corners of streets, or pretty much everywhere in public life now there is no presumption that your photo can’t be taken,” he added. “The question is how that technology on the back end can be used. That’s why I think what Sen. Rockefeller is doing is entirely appropriate.”

Mullin’s company has actively tested its MORIS device — which along with facial recognition technology, also scans fingerprints and irises — to various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and is set to deliver the technology to its first customers. But he isn’t worried about any potential loss of business the federal look into privacy might have, primarily because the device is hooked up to law enforcement databases, not public ones.

“There are no plans that I’m aware of to have it be used to look at any public database, so I don’t anticipate any public backlash,” Mullin said.

“To look out in these public spaces, whether it is Facebook or others, to look at that, it’s critical,” he added, regarding Rockefeller’s request to the FTC. “But I don’t think it’s going to have any significant change on how law enforcement does its work.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.