Some of the most popular stores in the United States, including Macy’s and Albertsons – use facial recognition on their customers, largely without their knowledge, according to digital rights association Fight the Future.
On July 14, Fight for the Future helped launch a national campaign to document which of the country’s largest retailers are deploying facial recognition and which have pledged not to use the technology. The campaign, which has the support of more than 35 human rights groups, aims to bring attention to retail stores by using facial analysis algorithms to increase their profits, intensify security systems and even track their employees.
The campaign comes as a clear reminder that the reach of facial recognition goes far beyond law enforcement and in the private business storefronts that we regularly visit. Experts warn that facial recognition in these spaces is of particular concern as the technology is largely unregulated and undisclosed, which means customers and employees may be unaware that this software is monitoring and collecting data about them.
“A lot of people would probably be surprised how many retailers they shop at regularly are using this technology in various ways to protect their profits and maximize their profits as well,” Caitlin Seeley George, campaign manager. at Fight for the Future, Recode said.
While you may never have heard of it before, stores using facial recognition are not a new practice. Last year, Reuters reported that drug chain Rite Aid had rolled out facial recognition to at least 200 stores over nearly a decade (before the company suddenly pledged to ditch the software). In fact, facial recognition is just one of many technologies that chain stores are deploying to improve their security systems or to monitor customers. Some retailers, for example, used apps and in-store wifi to track users as they move through physical stores and later target them with online ads.
A handful of popular stores, including grocery chain Albertsons and Macy’s, are already using facial recognition, according to Fight for the Future’s database. How exactly do these retailers use facial recognition may not be clear, as companies are usually not forthright about it.
At the same time, a growing number of tech startups and security companies are looking for opportunities to sell this software to stores. Some of these vendors are already well known, like Clearview AI, the controversial startup that scratched billions of images of people social media. But there are plenty of other facial recognitions suppliers that have received less attention, such as companies like AnyVision, who announced to have raised $ 235 million just last week.
Stores are embracing facial recognition technology because, they say, it can help them prevent theft. But experts warn that this technology sounds the alarm bells. Customers rarely know this technology is being used, leaving them with no option to say no or opt out of a store’s facial recognition-based watchlist. At the same time, facial recognition algorithms can be inaccurate and built-in racial and gender bias. In 2019, Apple was sued by an undergraduate student from New York City who alleges the company is using facial recognition technology for security purposes and wrongly linked it to multiple thefts in apple stores that he did not commit.
“We’re really concerned about how the employees of retailers using facial recognition are largely affected, because they don’t really have the option to opt out if there comes a point where people can either have their jobs and be supervised or not work, ”George, of Fight for the Future, told Recode. Customers living in areas where there are few options for stores may also be forced to accept the technology, she added.
One of the main challenges is that facial recognition is generally unregulated, and many current efforts to harness the technology focus primarily on its use by government and law enforcement. “The laws are so different that it would probably be impossible to write a clear and clear bill regulating both consumers and the government,” Brian Hofer, who helped craft facial recognition ban in San Francisco, Recode said Last year.
But there have been attempts to regulate this technology, even when used in private. In 2019, Lowe’s and Home Depot were sued for using facial recognition in violation of Illinois biometric privacy law, one of the strictest laws in the country. Just this month a law of the city of New York eventually came into force, requiring stores and businesses to notify customers when they collect their biometrics. And this week, the commission that oversees the Port of Seattle voted to ban biometric technology from its facilities.
While members of Congress have come up with several ideas to provide customers with greater protection against the use of facial recognition by private companies, there is still no meaningful regulation at the federal level. “In the vast majority of towns and cities, there are no rules on when private companies can use surveillance technology, and when they can share information with the police, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]or even private advertisements, ”warns Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
In the meantime, Fight for the Future is moving forward with its plan to appeal to companies that already use the technology. The group is also collecting information on competing stores that don’t use facial recognition, so people can have the option of avoiding this surveillance if they choose.
Correction, July 19, 2021: An earlier version of this story stated that Ace Hardware uses facial recognition. Ace Hardware said in a statement that the specific Fight for the Future store location cited in its database does not use the technology. Ace Hardware did not say if other stores are using this technology. Fight for the Future has since updated its database.