Facial recognition is a broad field in which researchers use 3-D modeling, analysis of patterns of light and dark in photographs and other techniques to first pick out faces from a video stream or still photo, then identify either characteristics of the subject (male or female, age range, race) or a specific identity. Though it is still used largely for security, other applications are spreading, particularly in the hospitality industry.
According to Consumer Reports, on Disney's four cruise ships, photographers roam the decks and dining rooms taking pictures of passengers. The images are sorted using facial recognition software so that photos of people registered to the same set of staterooms are grouped together. Passengers can later swipe their Disney ID at an onboard kiosk to easily call up every shot taken of their families throughout the trip.
Starting in 2010, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston in Texas employed a facial recognition system created by a company called 3VR. Though the system is designed mainly as a security tool, early on the hotel experimented with using the system to identify VIP guests who could be greeted by name by hotel staff, according to 3VR.
A surprising use of facial recognition was revealed in the summer of 2015 when a company called Churchix said it had installed a facial recognition system in dozens of churches around the world to track which congregants were attending services. Company founder Moshe Greenshpan declined to put Consumer Reports in touch with any clients, saying that the technology received a "wave of bad publicity, and our clients got a little scared." However, he defended his product. "Tracking members means that churches know who is a regular attendee, and might be open to giving a donation, for example," he says. "It also means they can know whether a regular attendee suddenly stops coming. The church can call to make sure everything is OK."
In a recent study of 1,085 U.S. consumers by research firm First Insight, 75 percent of respondents said they would not shop in a store that used the technology for marketing purposes. Notably, the number dropped to 55 percent if it was used to offer good discounts.
The aversion people feel to facial recognition may decline as it becomes more familiar, especially if retailers offer enough incentives. Meanwhile, not every intelligent camera system is looking to identify you as an individual. Facial recognition can also help marketers determine shoppers' age, sex and race.
In Germany, the Astra beer brand recently created an automated billboard that noted when women walked past. The billboard approximated the women's age, then played one of several prerecorded ads to match.
According to privacy advocates, this is the time to consider policy changes, while facial recognition is still ramping up. One idea would be to require an opt-in before people are entered into a facial recognition database, with reasonable exceptions for safety and security applications.
Second, regulations could require companies to encrypt faceprints or institute other strong data protections — after all, a compromised PIN can be replaced, but there's no ready solution if someone steals your biometric files.
Special rules could prevent children under the age of 13 from being targeted by facial recognition systems in stores. And consumers should have the right to know who has a copy of his or her faceprint, how it is being used and who it is being shared with. Consumer Reports notes that those are just a few of the proposals that can be debated, and should be. Because right now, there are virtually no consumer protections at all.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.