Walmart’s Use of Facial Recognition Tech to Spot Shoplifters Raises Privacy Concerns

Nov 09, 2015 — Joan Gurney
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An article on Fortune today outlined the use of FaceFirst, a facial recognition technology, in retail outlets to help identify suspected shoplifters. The concept is simple: the system identifies individuals from a live image feed and compares their facial features against a pre-existing database put together by the retailer of known suspects or offenders; if there is a match, a security guard or employee is notified via email, text or SMS alert.

FaceFirst allows the retailer to digitize images and then cross-reference the database against a live video feed to identify potential thieves.

The low-tech version of this process has already existed at many retail locations for years. Many places have photos of suspicious individuals pinned up in their offices so staff and security are made aware of people they should keep an eye on should they happen to walk in the store. FaceFirst allows the retailer to digitize this collection of images and then cross-reference the database against a live video feed to identify potential thieves and reduce shoplifting. If a suspect is flagged, staff can intervene.

This type of technology could raise privacy concerns from consumers who are uncomfortable with the concept of being tracked in store. Customer tracking in a retail location has been a source of controversy for a while. Even systems that involve less personal tracking, such as generic heat mapping and customer counting, have been deemed creepy or invasive by certain individuals. This technology could potentially be a turn off for some shoppers who are just not comfortable having their faces scanned and processed against a database of images.

This type of technology could raise privacy concerns from consumers who are uncomfortable with the concept of being tracked in store. 

That being said, security cameras are fairly commonplace today, so customers are already on camera. Additionally, the system is only supposed to store images of actual suspects and discard the others, so unless a customer is actually a suspect, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.

This type of system could actually benefit customers in the long run since an excess in theft can force a store to drive up prices to make up for lost profit. However, according to the article written by Fortune, Walmart had implemented the FaceFirst technology for several months as part of a trial but ended up discontinuing use when a significant ROI was not seen. While Walmart acknowledged that they were using the software, a number of other retailers did not clarify whether or not they were using the technology. A longer study may be required to determine ROI or perhaps the technology is more effective in locations where theft is a much higher problem.

Other than just being able to identify potential shoplifters, this same type of technology could be used to bring other benefits directly to the customer. Imagine if you were able to identify frequent shoppers and reward them as part of a loyalty program, or take note of when a particular customer had arrived at a store to pick up an online order so the sales staff could have their products ready for them before they even get to the register.

At the end of the day, it boils down to the consumer’s comfort level and how open and honest a retailer is about the type of information they are collecting from the customer and how that information is being used.

Topics: Privacy, Fraud

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