Southern California

Facial Recognition Tools Tracking Shoppers

Privacy experts are raising concerns about the tool, which they think goes too far.

Chances are, you’ll be spending time at a mall in the next few weeks, but while you’re focused on finding holiday bargains, a unique kind of camera may be focused on you.

More specifically, focused on your face to harvest information about your shopping patterns, your behavior and even your temper — and some people are calling the practice a major violation of privacy.

It’s the kind of thing you used to see only in science fiction movies, but it’s happening now. Software that captures every curve and shadow on your face is paired with cameras that can access that information in seconds to identify who you are and what you do.

Joseph Rosenkrantz is the chief executive of FaceFirst, a Westlake Village company at the forefront of facial recognition software development.

“When a person passes by a camera that’s armed with this system, it actually converts the person into a biometric template,” he explained of the tool.

The template is then compared against a database of other collected faces to look for a probable match. Among FaceFirst’s customers are police departments, airports, casinos and increasingly, the places you shop.

Many stores use the tool to look for shoplifters. Stores with facial recognition can ask suspects they apprehend to agree to have their photos taken, rather than be arrested, so they can be easily spotted and tracked the minute they come through the door.

“It really does prevent or save retailers from losing merchandise, a problem last year that was over $44 billion in lost merchandise,” said Joseph LaRocca, founder and president of Retail Partners and an expert in loss prevention.

But thieves aren’t the only ones whose images are being captured.

FaceFirst also services stores wanting to “build a database of good customers, to recognize them when they come through the door.”

Or to businesses that want to “get alerts when known litigious individuals enter.”

Georgetown University law professor and privacy advocate Alvaro Bedoya thinks the technology is being taken too far.

“It used to be we knew when we were tracked online, but when we stepped away from our computers, we weren’t. Now we might be tracked whether we know it or not, and we can’t stop it,” Bedoya said.

Shoppers have also voiced their displeasure.

“Not too happy about that, it’s a little too Big Brother to me,” said shopper Elizabeth Strobel.

Gabe Sidotti agreed.

“It is fully an invasion of privacy.”

The latest research suggests that about 3 out of 10 stores now use facial recognition to track customer behavior.

For more than a year, the U.S. Department of Commerce department held talks with business leaders and privacy advocates to develop a code of conduct for companies using the technology.

In June, nine separate privacy groups walked out, saying the companies refused to accept the need for prior permission to face-print consumers.

Alvaro Bedoya was among the protesters.

“Keep in mind, you don’t walk into a store alone. You walk in with your son, or with your daughter, so when all of this is being done in secret, not only do you not have a choice, your family doesn’t have a choice, and I think that’s wrong,” he said.

The NBC4 I-Team reached out to major retailers around Southern California to see if they’d confirm or deny using face recognition technology in their stores.

Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus said they don’t use it. Wal-Mart confirmed that they tested facial recognition out in several stores but a spokesman said the chain ultimately pulled the plug, saying simply “it wasn’t a good fit.”

Macy’s did not return requests for comment, and Saks Fifth Avenue said “no comment.”

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