Some of the most popular businesses in the United States – including Macy’s and Albertsons – use facial recognition on their customers largely without their knowledge, according to digital rights nonprofit Fight the Future.
On July 14th, Fight for the Future helped launch a nationwide campaign to document which of the largest retailers in the country are using facial recognition and which have pledged not to use the technology. The campaign that is supported by more than 35 human rights groups, wants to raise awareness of retail stores that use face scanning algorithms to increase their profits, strengthen security systems and even track their employees.
The campaign is a clear reminder that the reach of facial recognition extends well beyond law enforcement and into the private, commercial storefronts we regularly visit. Experts caution that facial recognition is of particular concern in these areas as the technology is largely unregulated and undisclosed, which means that both customers and employees may not know that this software is monitoring and collecting them.
“A lot of people would probably be surprised to know how many retailers who shop from regularly are using this technology in a variety of ways to protect their profits and maximize their profits,” Caitlin Seeley George, a campaign director at Fight for the Future, said Recode.
While you may never have heard of it, using facial recognition in stores is not a new practice. Last year, Reuters reported that drug chain Rite Aid had used facial recognition in at least 200 stores for nearly a decade (before the company suddenly committed to giving up the software). In fact, facial recognition is just one of several technologies that retail chains use to improve their security systems or otherwise monitor customers. For example, some retailers have used in-store apps and WiFi to track users as they move around physical stores and target them later with online advertisements.
A handful of popular stores, including grocery chains Albertsons and Macy’s, are already using facial recognition, according to the Fight for the Future database. How exactly do these traders use Face recognition can be unclear as companies typically aren’t upfront.
At the same time, more and more technology startups and security firms are looking for ways to sell this software to stores. Some of these sellers are already familiar, like Clearview AI, the controversial startup that scraped billions of images of people from social media. But there are many other facial recognition vendors that have received less attention, such as companies like AnyVision, which raised $ 235 million just last week.
Stores rely on facial recognition technology because it can help prevent theft. However, experts warn that this technology will sound the alarm. Customers rarely know this technology is in action, leaving them unable to say no or remove themselves from a store’s face-recognition-based wish list. At the same time, facial recognition algorithms can be inaccurate and come with built-in racial and gender biases. In 2019, Apple was sued by a New York student who alleged the company used facial recognition technology for security reasons and falsely linked him to multiple thefts in Apple stores that he did not commit.
“We are very concerned about how employees at retailers who use facial recognition are severely affected because they don’t really have the option to log out when people are either on their job and being monitored or out of work,” said George von Fight for the Future versus Recode. Customers who live in areas where there are few stores can also be forced to embrace the technology, she added.
One of the biggest challenges is that facial recognition is largely unregulated and many current efforts to contain the technology are largely focused on its use by governments and law enforcement agencies. “The laws are so diverse that it would probably be impossible to write a clean, clear-cut bill that governs both consumers and governments,” Brian Hofer, who helped shape the face recognition ban in San Francisco, told last year Recode.
But there have been attempts to regulate this technology even if it is used privately. In 2019, Lowe’s and Home Depot were sued for using facial recognition in violation of Illinois’ Biometric Privacy Act, one of the strictest laws in the country. Just this month, law finally went into effect in New York City requiring stores and businesses to notify their customers when they collect their biometric information. And this week the commission overseeing the Port of Seattle voted to ban biometric technology from its facilities.
While members of Congress have suggested several ideas to give customers more protection from the use of facial recognition by private companies, there are still no significant federal regulations. “In the vast majority of cities and towns there are no rules as to when private companies can use surveillance technology and when they can pass the information on to the police, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]or even private ads, ”warns Albert Fox Cahn, managing director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Meanwhile, Fight for the Future is pushing its plan to challenge companies who are already using the technology. The group also collects information about competing businesses that don’t use facial recognition, giving people the option to avoid this surveillance if they want.
Correction, July 19, 2021: An earlier version of this story states that Ace hardware uses facial recognition. Ace Hardware said in a statement that the specific Fight for the Future store location named in its database is not using the technology. Ace Hardware has not clarified whether other business locations are using this technology. Fight for the Future has now updated its database.