They see you when you’re shopping, and they know if you’ve been bad or good.
An in-depth piece by the BBC finds that retail stores are increasingly using cameras with face-recognition technology to identify shoplifters—and, in some cases, big spenders.
The cameras snap your picture as you walk in or browse the selves, then send it to a database of known shoplifters, often provided by local police. If there's a match, the store's managers or security guards will get a notification on their phone. What they do next—kick you out, follow you around, simply take note of your presence—is up to them. In one pilot program, the doors to a fancy jewelry store in Rotterdam, Netherlands, would actually lock when a suspected shoplifter approached.
Stores can use the same software to build their own databases of loyal and deep-pocketed customers, then target them with discounts or special customer service.
The technology isn't new. Police and the military have employed face recognition for years, while Facebook and Google use it to tag you and your friends in photos.
What's surprising about the BBC piece is the extent to which retailers appear to be adopting the technology, even as surveys consistently show that their customers abhor it. The story, which focuses on the United Kingdom, cites a survey by the U.S.-based IT services company CSC that finds more than 1 in 4 British retailers is using face recognition on its customers. That's a lot more than you'd expect to find using a technology that most people think of as futuristic and dystopian, if they’re aware of it at all.
It’s possible the technology is less common here: CSC told me it doesn’t have comparable survey data on U.S. retailers. It’s also possible that the 27 percent figure, based on a survey of 150 IT and marketing executives from U.K. retailers, is an overstatement.
We know, however, that at least some major U.S. retailers are doing this too. Fortune reported on Nov. 9 that Walmart tested a face-recognition system earlier this year. FaceFirst, which provided the technology, told Fortune that “several” Fortune 500 companies are using its software. But it wouldn’t say which ones they were—and, aside from Walmart, neither would the retailers. The ones the magazine contacted either denied using the technology or declined to comment.
What’s disturbing, even if you’re not opposed to face recognition in principle, is that we really don’t know which stores are using it. U.S. law does not restrict the use of face recognition technology, and only two states—Illinois and Texas—regulate it.
It’s no wonder retailers are reluctant to talk about their use of the technology: They clearly view it quite differently from their customers. More than half of the retail executives in that CSC survey said they believe the technology is beneficial, and just 7 percent considered it “intrusive.”
Among the 2,000 consumers who responded, however, 56 percent admitted they don’t know what face recognition is. Of those who do, 75 percent said they believe it’s intrusive. That dovetails with a June 2015 survey by Transparency Market Research, this one conducted in the U.S., which found that 75 percent of U.S. shoppers would avoid shopping at a store that used face recognition. That number remained a stubborn 55 percent even when respondents were told that the technology would come with a price discount.
The same research firm estimated the global face recognition market was worth $1.3 billion in 2014, and forecast that it will more than double by 2022. In short, face recognition is no longer science fiction. It’s big business.
Efforts to set ethical guidelines around face recognition, however, have so far gone nowhere. Talks between consumer privacy groups and industry representatives over voluntary guidelines for its use broke down this summer when the privacy groups walked out. They said the industry groups refused to consider even basic privacy protections.
It’s a neat little Catch-22 they’ve worked out. Retailers aren’t going to tell customers that they’re using face recognition unless customers demand it. And customers aren’t going to demand it if they don’t know it’s happening.
Previously in Slate: