The news agency Reuters recently posted a story outlining and confirming how the U.S. drugstore chain Rite-Aid had been using facial recognition technology – cameras and AI algorithms – to monitor customers in some of its stores in New York City and L.A.
The computer vision tech was being used mostly in lower-income, non-white neighborhoods as a counter-measure to theft, looking for known or suspected criminals.
Over about eight years, the American drugstore chain Rite Aid Corp quietly added facial recognition systems to 200 stores across the United States, in one of the largest rollouts of such technology among retailers in the country, a Reuters investigation found.
In the hearts of New York and metro Los Angeles, Rite Aid deployed the technology in largely lower-income, non-white neighborhoods, according to a Reuters analysis. And for more than a year, the retailer used state-of-the-art facial recognition technology from a company with links to China and its authoritarian government.
In telephone and email exchanges with Reuters since February, Rite Aid confirmed the existence and breadth of its facial recognition program. The retailer defended the technology’s use, saying it had nothing to do with race and was intended to deter theft and protect staff and customers from violence. Reuters found no evidence that Rite Aid’s data was sent to China.
Last week, however, after Reuters sent its findings to the retailer, Rite Aid said it had quit using its facial recognition software. It later said all the cameras had been turned off.
“This decision was in part based on a larger industry conversation,” the company told Reuters in a statement, adding that “other large technology companies seem to be scaling back or rethinking their efforts around facial recognition given increasing uncertainty around the technology’s utility.”
There are all kinds of social and privacy issues that could be raised and debated here, like racial profiling and the counter-arguments about anti-theft and safe workplace measures. But that’s not what I do. I mention this news because the circumstances will be invariably raised about the perceived flaws or even evils of computer vision in retail and other settings.
Rite Aid was using facial recognition technology, while the overwhelming percentage of technologies being floated for use in retail and media applications is facial pattern detection. The former captures faces on camera streams and matches them against a database of faces, while the latter uses machine learning to look for the geometry of faces and other shapes. The former says, “That’s Dave.” The latter says, “That’s a cranky old white guy.”
This is a really important distinction that, many years into this technology being around, still gets missed, and abused.
It matters, because anonymous video analytics would seem to finally be hitting its stride. Westfield is now using it across all of its digital OOH screens in malls, not just a sample. NEC and InReality, to name a couple of options, have platforms designed to deliver retail insights. And pandemic-driven safety measures are bring computer vision into settings that need to monitor everything from store and line-up density to face mask compliance.
It also matters because the technology is increasingly easy to add to capabilities via tools like Intel’s OpenVino, and companies like Intuiface and Mad Systems, neither who would describe their core work as computer vision, have been able to add that capability.
This news about Rite Aid will chill some consumers, and inflame opponents of technology that they say erodes privacy. Guaranteed, it will have at least some consumers bothered and advocacy groups broadly alarmed when they see camera systems.
It’s a reminder, if one was needed, that if your company is marketing or using anonymous video analytics, you really, really want to take some care in stating what it is and does.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.