Major US retailers are already using facial recognition cameras to spy on shoppers, an activist group has warned.
The technology, usually associated with authoritarian regimes like China, is used both to identify thieves and to serve “personalized” ads.
Caitlin Seeley George, of anti-facial recognition campaign group Fight for the Future, told DailyMail.com that its use has been quietly “spreading steadily” for several years.
Walgreens and Macy’s are among the largest retailers to have adopted the technology, implementing it in hundreds of stores across the country.
And it’s not just the United States: Britain is also adopting this technology.
Stores are using facial recognition both to stop shoplifters and to serve ads (Getty)
The cameras are being used not only to catch persistent shoplifters, but also to monitor shoppers and analyze their emotions so that stores can offer personalized ads on in-store screens, George warned.
“Many stores say they use it to identify shoplifters and as a deterrent tool,” he said.
“But it’s also used for marketing purposes, they collect information about buyers and see what they buy and what they don’t buy, and they use artificial intelligence tools to analyze buyers’ emotions and see what kind of ads to target them.”
The global facial recognition technology market is forecast to reach $7 billion by 2024, according to research from analyst Thales Group.
There is no federal law regulating the use of facial recognition technology, George said, and in most U.S. states there are no laws preventing the use of facial recognition.
Some states, including Washington, Vermont and Maine, have regulated the use of this technology.
Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, encouraged retailers to use technology to fight crime.
George said, “There are some states and communities that have addressed the use of this technology, but generally there is no policy on it, so stores can move at their own pace.”
Stores like Walgreens have experimented with facial recognition advertising (Reuters)
ALFI boasts that its technology can “personalize” ads for each buyer (ALFI)
Stores are using the technology to achieve results similar to the data they get from membership cards, but without anyone signing up for a card system.
Companies like ALFI boast about their ability to use facial recognition and artificial intelligence to “detect” people’s emotions while they are in the store and serve them personalized ads.
ALFI also claims that its technology, which uses AI to analyze camera images, can accurately perceive age and ethnicity.
The company said: ‘ALFI’s advertising platform can make changes between ads depending on the person in front of the screen.
‘For digital outdoor advertising, that is unheard of. ALFI can be installed on any device that has an internet connection and a camera, delivering personalized content and ads to anyone who looks at the screen.’
The company claims that no data is stored on its devices, so customer privacy is maintained.
Walgreens is an enthusiastic adopter of this technology, and 750 stores will use facial recognition in 2021 to offer personalized ads based on shoppers’ appearance.
At Walgreens, video screens above refrigerators show ads personalized to the user, based on data such as gender and age.
George said the cameras in stores are used to “assess information about you” and gather information about which ad to show to persuade someone to open a refrigerator.
He said: “We have been working to stop the use of facial recognition very broadly in terms of government and police use, as well as for private corporate entities using it in public places.” And we’ve had some success focusing on individual spaces in order to put a lot of public pressure on them to stop.’
The campaign has been successful in persuading events such as music festivals to avoid using facial recognition technology.
She said: “When we saw technology spreading in stores, we thought this could be a space to do it.” One of the problems is that since in most places there are no laws that address this, they don’t have to tell you if they are using it.’
“We found that a lot of the retailers we contacted didn’t really want to engage with us on this issue, I think because they’re worried about negative public reaction, so they’d rather do it quietly.” Instead of advertising its use.
A Buzzfeed investigation in 2020 found leaked documents suggesting Macy’s had used software from the controversial company ClearView AI that compared faces to a database scraped from the web.
Macy’s has faced lawsuits over its alleged use of ClearView AI facial recognition technology.
George said: “We contacted Macy’s and they flat out said, ‘Yes, we use facial recognition and we have no plans to stop it.’ But part of the problem we run into is that many retailers don’t want to advertise its use.”
For everyday consumers, there’s no way to check stores’ privacy policies, George said, which is why Fight for the Future maintains a list
‘For anyone who goes to the supermarket, people can’t go online and check all the store’s privacy policies; every time they need to run out and buy something, it’s just absurd. “That’s why we’re trying to increase understanding around this issue.”
George said many smaller stores have been quietly purchasing facial recognition technology and he believes store owners are trying to deal with thefts themselves, due to a lack of support from police.
George said: ‘A lot of what we’re seeing is that there’s a lot of fear of shoplifting. Many of these stores have no room to maneuver to lose their profits because of this. And then the authorities don’t do anything either.
“The reality is that every time there is mass surveillance of a society, it is used to surveil people.”