Retailers roll out facial recognition with mixed results — and minimal regulation

Retailers aren’t sure they work -- and consumers are sure they don’t want them to -- but facial recognition systems are becoming common at big retail stores.


August 20, 2018

Critics of facial recognition software often describe it as a problematic law enforcement tool, but it’s showing up somewhere else first — the mall. And, despite the tech’s growth, its effectiveness (and ethics) are up for debate.

Eliminating theft or eliminating privacy?

Retailers lose $48.9B to theft every year, giving them about 50 billion reasons to want better video surveillance. But with great surveillance… comes great privacy invasion. 

Most facial recognition surveillance systems are so discreet that the ACLU and other consumer rights advocates have criticized the technology, which usually collects data without permission from shoppers.

Either way, according to the CEO of facial recognition company FaceFirst, hundreds of retailers are already using the systems in their stores, with thousands more on the way in the near future

So… do they work? 

Results are — you guessed it — inconclusive. 

FaceFirst scans shoppers against a 25m-face database in under a second — which, according to a FaceFirst rep, has reduced shoplifting by 30%. But, other big retailers like Target and Walmart have tested and scrapped the systems because they don’t deliver desired results

And the bigger problem is that no one can agree on who makes the rules. Only one state — Illinois — has passed laws banning the collection of biometric data without the subject’s consent. Everywhere else, it’s fair game for retailers to surveil faces to their heart’s content. 

So as the debate about the ethics of facial recognition continues, make sure to smile the next time you go shopping.

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