Retail Tech and Privacy

The pros and cons of facial recognition
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — The dystopian novel "1984" begins with the protagonist Winston Smith hiding from a device called a telescreen. The telescreen is a combination TV and surveillance camera that the book’s fictional government uses to constantly monitor its citizens. In author George Orwell’s nightmare world, everyday people can watch programs on the telescreens, but it is always watching them back.

What does this have to do with convenience stores? More and more every day. When "1984" was published in 1949, Orwell could not imagine that we would have the ability to immediately identify almost anyone using facial recognition technology. The possibility that we as consumers might soon be surrounded by such technology in retail and restaurant settings is very real.

One booth at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago demonstrated the approaching ubiquity of facial recognition. Kiosk maker Bite, based in New York, showed off a sleek ordering kiosk capable of using facial recognition to identify customers and immediately display their food orders from their previous visit. The devices can identify up to two people at once. For example, if a parent and child approach the screen, it can identify both and adjust the first options it displays accordingly. It can even connect a person’s face to their loyalty program profile. Such devices are already being tested at select Chick-fil-A locations, and they are slated to spread to more within months.

On one hand, facial recognition devices such as this could be the next logical step in providing the level of service customers increasingly demand. After all, BRP, a Boston-based retail analysis firm, recently released a study claiming that 79% of consumers see personalized service as an important factor when deciding where to shop. Furthermore, the study found that 64% of consumers are comfortable with retailers identifying them with their mobile phones when they enter the store if they are offered a personalized experience in return.

But there is a difference between identifying people using their phones and using their faces. Facial recognition is a step too far for many, including most representatives on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The board voted overwhelmingly—8 to 1—to ban the use of facial recognition software by the police and other government.

The ban does not apply to consumers and companies in the city, but Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who sponsored the bill, described the vote as symbolic. “I think part of San Francisco being the real and perceived headquarters for all things tech also comes with a responsibility for its local legislators,” Peskin said to the The New York Times. “We have an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here.”

Despite privacy concerns, facial recognition has the potential to be a boon for retailers looking to quickly identify customers in order to personalize their services. But this technology is not the only path forward. Amazon Go, the burgeoning no-checkout store concept, does not use facial recognition to identify customers, according to an Amazon spokesperson, despite its many cameras and sensors lining store ceilings.

Facial recognition is not inherently evil, but the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will not be the last group to raise concerns over its potential for misuse. After all, we don’t want to end up like poor Winston in "1984," hiding from the telescreen just to have a moment to ourselves.

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