Privacy in Marketplace

Campaign Launched to Ban Facial Recognition in Stores

By: Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy

Consumer Federation of America has joined more than 35 consumer, privacy and civil rights groups in a campaign to ban the use of facial recognition technology in stores, restaurants and other retail establishments. As the website created by campaign coordinator Fight for the Future explains, facial recognition can be used unfairly – and in some cases inaccurately – to identify people and treat them differently than other people.

One of the most common arguments in favor of using facial recognition in stores is that it can help identify known shoplifters, bad-check writers and other criminals. But it’s well-known that this technology is prone to error and biased, frequently misidentifying people of color. Furthermore, people may have been falsely accused of crimes. And where do you draw the line for objectionable behavior? Should someone who is recognized as having been involved in a protest be barred from a store? What about an undocumented individual? How do you know that someone who appears to be drunk doesn’t have a disability that affects their facial expression?

On the other end of the scale, facial recognition can be used to identify people for preferential treatment. For example, someone who spends a lot of money at a store may be offered a special deal, or moved to a shorter line. As the Government Accounting Office noted in studying facial recognition, it can also be used to track what people look at in a store in order to target them for marketing. See my earlier blog on surveillance advertising – it’s the same type of profiling for profit, based on what we do in the physical world rather than online, though of course online and offline the data can be combined to paint an even richer picture of our activities and interests.

Even if facial recognition was 100 percent accurate and only used for things we personally benefit from, do we want to live in a society where we can no longer simply browse in a store in private? Where some people are treated better than others based on how they look and other assumptions about them? Where we can’t control the use and sharing of intimate personal information such as our faces?

In my view, this type of commercial surveillance is un-American and unwarranted. We applaud the companies that have committed not to use facial recognition – the list is on the campaign website – and we urge other companies to make that pledge. Individuals can join the campaign to make their voices heard and help persuade retailers to do the right thing.