Is facial scanning technology in public an invasion of privacy?


Walgreens is the latest company to take advantage of facial scanning in order to learn more about customers. The retailer is installing “smart coolers” into select stores to analyze customers’ faces, noting what draws the eye of certain demographics. Some say facial scanning technology used in public is an invasion of privacy, as no one gives consent to the facial analysis. Others say facial recognition in public will help keep everyone safe.What do you think?


When the first Amazon Go store opened in 2018, protestors joined eager shoppers. Amazon Go stores employ no human cashiers, making privacy experts and advocates question the level of personal detail Amazon would be collecting on is customers via surveillance.

Amazon has been decidedly quiet about the technology it employees in order to make this new-age shopping experience possible. According to the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell andAbha Bhattarai:

Amazon has not shared details on the methods involved in its “Just Walk Out” technology, but says it mimics some of the techniques seen in self-driving cars, including machine-learning systems that improve over time, as well as computer vision, the image-processing technology used in Facebook photo tags.

Meaning, the technology Amazon is employing behind its sleek, black-box cameras could be collecting everything from your gender and age to what products you buy, as well as what products you “almost” buy. When you head into one of these stores to do your shopping, you’re revealing your desires to the many companies who want to take advantage of them, without even realizing it.

Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University’s law school, suspects Amazon is collecting more customer data than any other retailer:

“But Amazon is tracking you throughout the store. Are they really only tracking you when you lift the item off a shelf? Or are they tracking where you move throughout the store, what you’re looking at, what sections you’re dwelling in?”

Inside Amazon Go: The camera-filled convenience store that watches you back

Walgreens is joining the ranks with its new “smart coolers.” According toThe Atlantic’sSidney Fussell, the chain will try out “fridges equipped with cameras that scan shoppers’ faces and make inferences on their age and gender” in select locations as of early 2019.

Obviously, it’s valuable for both brands and retailers to know what shoppers are buying and to categorize those buying habits by demographics like age and gender. But at what cost? Most feel knowledge of customer buying patterns should not violate the privacy of shoppers by scanning their faces without explicit consent.

As far as Walgreens is concerned, the company is safe when it comes to violating customers’ privacy. The Atlantic’s Fussell makes clear:

Crucially, the “Cooler Screens” system does not use facial recognition. Shoppers aren’t identified when the fridge cameras scan their face. Instead, the cameras analyze faces to make inferences about shoppers’ age and gender.

Meaning, images of shopper’s faces are not collected and stored. As Fussell says:

It’s analysis, not recognition.

Facial scanning is the natural next step for brands to learn more about their target customers and future customers. In a supersaturated marketplace, this kind of detailed analysis is necessary in order for companies to keep expanding.

Walgreens Tests New Smart Coolers

Facial recognition not only has the power to improve relationships between brands and customers, but it could also make huge improvements in public safety.Forbes’Michael Xie reports:

In education, school districts in Arkansas and New York are already looking to facial recognition technology combined with machine learning algorithms to identify people, objects and even behaviors that could present safety threats.

In the event of a tragedy like a school shooting, the technology’s power becomes more clear. It could identify a figure approaching a school and not only confirm if the person should be on the school campus but also use object detection to determine whether the person is holding a weapon or acting suspiciously.

This technology is for the greater good of the people. Although privacy laws should be handled with care, there’s no need to turn away from facial scanning and facial recognition completely. In reality, this technology could change the way we live for the better.

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