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Washington frets over 'Minority Report'-style facial recognition technology

IMAGE: Matias Duarte, left, senior director of "Android user experience" at Google, tries to demonstrate the "face unlock" feature of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus Android phone
Matias Duarte, left, senior director of "Android user experience" at Google, tries to demonstrate the "face unlock" feature of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus Android phone during its official launch in Hong Kong in October 2011. Laurent Fievet

In Steven Spielberg's futuristic "Minority Report," Tom Cruise's character sees a custom ad for Guinness after his face is scanned in the year 2054.

Similar technology, however, isn't science fiction. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus let people unlock their phones with a glance in 2011, while Apple was awarded a patent on Tuesday for facial recognition technology that could find its way into a future iPhone. Tesco has already installed high-tech screens at some of its gas stations in the U.K. that serve up custom ads after determining a person's gender and approximate age. And in September, Facebook announced that it might expand the use of its facial recognition software to help tag photos of its more than 1 billion members. 

"Facial recognition technology has profound implications for privacy," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote in a letter to Facebook in September. "Facial recognition tracks you in the real world, from cameras stationed on street corners and in shopping centers, and through photographs taken by friends and strangers alike."

Franken has expressed his concerns to the U.S. Commerce Department, which announced on Tuesday that one of its agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), would hold public meetings on the topic in 2014 in hopes of developing an "enforceable code of conduct" for companies to follow when it comes to using and storing information gleaned from facial recognition technology. 

The "multi-stakeholder process" will include input from tech companies, privacy advocates, academics and consumer groups, a statement from the NTIA said

While there are certainly privacy concerns surrounding facial recognition technology, it's important to think about all of the benefits it could bring as well, Marios Savvides, head of Carnegie Mellon University's biometrics lab, told NBC News.

"I see facial recognition as basically a smart way of interacting with computers," Savvides said, citing the prospect of a "smart home" as a more positive vision of the future. "You go to your home, and suddenly it recognizes who you are, it turns on your lights, adjusts your heating, and changes the TV to your favorite channel. I don't see that as a negative. I see that as a huge plus."

For now, fears of "Minority Report"-style ads might be overblown. The cameras and software in Tesco's smart ads, for example, aren't advanced enough to actually tell who you are. Plus, as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) has noted, "current tools perform best on the well-posed, frontal facial photos taken for identification purposes."

Facebook scanning your profile photo is one thing. A camera recognizing a person walking by in poor light is another. Still, the ubiquity of social media and the inevitable progress of technology means that this issue will likely remain on the radar of privacy advocates, even if today's tech isn't quite up to Hollywood's standards. 

"While these technologies hold great promise for innovation," Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said Tuesday in a statement, "consumers — not companies — should to be in control of their sensitive personal information."

Keith Wagstaff writes about technology for NBC News. He previously covered technology for TIME's Techland and wrote about politics as a staff writer at TheWeek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kwagstaff and reach him by email at: Keith.Wagstaff@nbcuni.com