Access and Feeds

Retail and Facial Recognition: How Much are You Willing to Give up for Convenience?

By Dick Weisinger

Your face is unique and AI is being perfected to recognize anyone’s face. As a biometric identifier, the capability of facial recognition is powerful, obsoleting the need for passwords, drivers licenses, and other identifiers. It makes things easier. It also makes it much easier to perform surveillance and tracking, which can have severe privacy implications. There is a worry of Big Brother and Big Tech and what will be done with the dossier that gets collected of your past actions and movements.

Retail in particular has jumped on the use of facial recognition. Facial recognition can be useful in improving sales by knowing more about whom you are selling to and lets retailers tailor the store experience to the customer. It provides convenience by enabling contactless payments to speed up your time in stores. And it can also be used as a tool for security to help prevent and track down theft and fraud.

But then there is the downside of the technology.

Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director for Fight for the Future, said that “facial recognition vendors are taking advantage of the pandemic to promote the technology to offer hands-free payments or monitor the distance between people, and stores are promoting them as features for safety and convenience. But the truth is, you’re giving up so much more than that.”

George said that “companies say they offer facial recognition in the name of ‘convenience’ and ‘personalization’, but their real priorities are protecting and predicting their profits, ignoring how they abuse peoples’ rights and put them in danger. The stores that are using or are considering using facial recognition should pay attention to this call from dozens of leading civil rights and racial justice organizations who represent millions of people. Retailers should commit to not using facial recognition in their stores so we can champion their decision, or be prepared for an onslaught of opposition.”

Brenda Leong, Senior Counsel and Director for Artificial Intelligence and Ethics at the Future of Privacy Foundation, said that “if someone walks into a drug store and they can intuit that they are anxious or worried, are they going to try to market them a sleep aid?. Some retailer could take advantage of someone’s emotional state without that person’s knowledge. There’s a real imbalance of power there.

Tawana Petty, the national organizing director at Data for Black Lives, echoed the sentiment from a perspective of profiling and discrimination, saying that “these cameras using facial recognition are monitored at real-time crime centers, police precincts, and on officers’ mobile devices 24/7. It’s difficult to explain the psychological toll it takes on a community, knowing that your every move is being monitored by a racially biased algorithm with the power to yank your freedom away from you.”

Ahmer Inam, chief AI officer at Pactera EDGE, told ZDnet that “using a mindful AI approach, a powerful tool like facial recognition can yield tremendous benefits for the consumer — as well as the retailer. But values such as privacy, transparency, and ethical-use have to be top-of-mind during the build.”

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