FTC guarding against ‘Minority Report’-style advertising

2012_10_Minority_Report_Poster Minority Report (Source: Wikipedia)

A piece of science fiction is becoming a reality, so much so that a government agency is setting up guidelines to police it.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued privacy protection guidelines for companies like Facebook that use facial recognition technology to identify people in photographs based on facial features.


In the guidelines, the FTC predicted that advertisers could soon begin placing cameras in public places and displaying targeted ads based on a person’s age, gender, mood or other characteristics similar to the 2002 movie Minority Report.

The report, released Monday, even mentions the movie, which starred Tom Cruise as a police officer living in a future where crimes could be stopped before they happen.

“In the 2002 film Minority Report, Steven Spielberg imagined a world in which companies use biometric technology to identify us and serve us targeted ads,” the report said. “Ten years later, that vision is coming closer to reality. Having overcome the high costs and poor accuracy that once stunted its growth, one form of biometric technology – facial recognition – is quickly moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the commercial marketplace.”

Below is a scene showing the film’s version of this style of advertising:


The FTC recommended companies that use facial recognition technology take steps to protect the personal data they collect and delete unnecessary personal data. They should also consider the sensitivity of the information before collecting it.

For example, advertisers should not use the technology in bathrooms, locker rooms, healthcare facilities or areas with lots of children, the FTC said.

“Given the significant privacy and safety risks that such an app would raise, only consumers who have affirmatively chosen to participate in such a system should be identified,” the FTC wrote.

Social networking sites should allow users to opt out of the technology, and advertisers placing cameras in public areas should provide clear notice that the technology is in use, the report concluded.

In the report, the FTC outlined two scenarios where a person needs to give consent to having his or her information collected:


First, they should obtain a consumer’s affirmative express consent before using a consumer’s image or any biometric data derived from that image in a materially different manner than they represented when they collected the data.

Second, companies should not use facial recognition to identify anonymous images of a consumer to someone who could not otherwise identify him or her, without obtaining the consumer’s affirmative express consent.

Consider the example of a mobile app that allows users to identify strangers in public places, such as on the street or in a bar. If such an app were to exist, a stranger could surreptitiously use the camera on his mobile phone to take a photo of an individual who is walking to work or meeting a friend for a drink and learn that individual’s identity – and possibly more information, such as her address – without the individual even being aware that her photo was taken.

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