Retailers Dial Up Facial Recognition

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The recent shopping season was bustling and fatiguing with a dash of intrusiveness thrown in to spice things up. At the register, clerks probably tried to extract information about you to boost their marketing efforts by asking for your email or ZIP code. One major goal of retailers was to strive to deter theft while increasing sales. This season, at least one in three retailers probably learned facial recognition to learn more about you, and that was no Ho, Ho, Hoax.

A successful shopping season is vital for most merchants so many have embraced new technology that promises to help achieve that goal. With biometric analysis software, the space between your eyes or the length of your nose can be easily captured as you walk into a store. Within seconds, a computer program will compare your face to a list of known shoplifters. If you’ve assumed you own the image of your own face, it’s time to understand that, to date, it’s been difficult to restrict how others use it.


Theft Deterrent

So far, loss prevention has been the primary driver for facial rec tech sales. When shoppers are caught shoplifting and added to the system, they’re easily identified if they return to a store and many do. A representative will approach them and ask them to leave the shop. Shoplifters with really negative history will trigger a call to 911.

One large retailer agreed to share its experiences with an industry group called Loss Prevention Media if the website guaranteed the company anonymity.

“We now know within seconds of a person walking in the store if they’ve previously been caught stealing from us,” a vice president of the company stated. “We now know which hours of the day see the most shoplifter activity. We now know that 26 percent of the people we detain, we see again in the brand within one month, on average 13 days later. It’s going to be a game changer.”

Some retailers are understandably reluctant to disclose these efforts because customers can perceive the tracking as intrusive or just plain creepy. Wal-Mart is one retailer that admitted trying facial rec to control shoplifting. The company says it discontinued the program because it was not cost effective.

New training and added video cameras are costly but essential expenditures for a successful program.

The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law estimates that 117 million Americans are already in a facial recognition database. That’s over 50% of the nation’s population. The photos come primarily from state driver’s licenses and ID cards.

“Innocent people don’t belong in criminal databases,” said Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report. “By using face recognition to scan the faces on 26 states’ driver’s license and ID photos, police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up. This has never been done for fingerprints or DNA. It’s uncharted and frankly dangerous territory.”

Bedoya believes that facial rec should only be permitted if the owner of the face clearly grants approval but he’s not had much luck convincing government groups to restrict this technology.


How Accurate Is Facial Rec?

There’s reason to worry about the accuracy of facial recognition programs. Errors are possible. Imagine a retailer incorrectly identifying a shopper as a prior shoplifter and asking them to leave. Such errors could be a major liability and they do occur.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has compiled the largest biometric database in history with more than 400 million files stored. While one study put the FBI’s accuracy at 85%, a separate report said Facebook’s DeepFace program yielded an accuracy rate above 97.5%.


Top Marketing Tool

These image recognition systems also reveal unique and useful marketing data for retailers. VIPs and big spenders can be easily identified to guarantee enhanced customer service. Regular customers can be identified and greeted by name. Each shopper’s movements can be analyzed to determine which product displays have maximum impact. The technology could also track shoppers who frequently return purchases.

Taken a step further, facial rec can make it tough to negotiate prices for big ticket items. If your image is captured in the new car showroom, a quick background check could tell the salesperson your income. That bit of data could make it hard to close the deal at lower price.

This technology is not only mushrooming in retail locations. Earlier this year, MasterCard announced plans to allow online shoppers to use biometrics for identification. Either a selfie or a fingerprint can expedite your payment verification.


Privacy Problems

Facial rec software is, in some ways, similar to store loyalty cards that provide rewards for frequent shoppers. Those cards collect far more information about you than you realize in return for small discounts.

How are all these photographs and other data stored? Who decides what images can be stockpiled? The answer is elusive, underscoring the range of privacy issues.

Facebook has been repeatedly criticized for its ability to tag individuals in group photos. What if you don’t want to be tagged? At present, there’s no ideal way to opt out. There are a few ways to restrict the tag option here. However, you must act; there is no ‘opt-in’ requirement, so you’re automatically a tagging target unless you change your privacy settings.

Privacy concerns have been voiced on many fronts, including at several Congressional hearings but, to date, there’s little regulating the use of facial recognition techniques in the US.

In Europe however, regulatory agencies have challenged Facebook, claiming that the company’s ‘tag’ option that finds and labels photos of an individual are a clear invasion of privacy. Facebook in 2013 agreed to turn off the tag option for EU customers. That prompted some US users to complain bitterly.

“I don’t want people to tag me, I just hate this service,” one US user wrote.


Facial Rec Widespread

The use of facial rec has spread far beyond brick and mortar stores. Your image could be stored in numerous locations.

  • Music lovers were photographed during 2013’s Boston Calling music festival.
  • For the past few years, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has sued the FBI to determine the scope of the government’s biometric data collection.
  • Police in San Diego, CA, have been using facial rec similar to that used by the US Military for years.
  • The potential for privacy breakdowns forced Google to prohibit facial recognition with its Google Glass eyewear.

The government is deep into surveillance and hoarding your many biometric markers—iris print, fingerprints and facial details. Drones make image capture even easier than before. For most Americans, it’s a potential privacy minefield but one that’s not going away. This genie is determined to stay out of the lamp.


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