NEC employee Olga Foster demonstrates a facial recognition system's ability to estimate her age, gender and race. NEC makes display screens used for facial recognition-driven ads. (NEC Corp.)
Targeted marketing is nothing new. Advertisers always want the most bang for their buck, so gathering information about consumers has been a crucial part of figuring out an effective strategy to get us to spend on a specific product or type of product. "Loyalty programs" that reward shoppers with points or discounted prices on goods and services are probably the most common way to find out who's buying what. Every time you swipe your card at the grocery or drug store, you're not just getting lower prices on your merchandise, you're handing over valuable information to the companies that track your spending. Assuming you filled out the identifying information on your card application honestly, there's a goldmine there: not just what you buy, but where you live, how old you are, maybe even your income bracket. And that information is offered voluntarily buy consumers. What about information that's gathered without consumer knowledge? And what if that information is based on your facial features that identify your sex and your age range? Or even you as an individual?
Facebook had to calm irate users a few months ago when it introduced facial recognition software that could automatically identify friends when you uploaded photos of them onto the social network. People complained about fears of invasion of privacy -- a frequent issue that Facebook has had to address and a rather odd situation considering most users volunteer a huge amount of personal data that can be harvested by the applications they allow to access their profiles. Surely you've noticed that the ads you see are affected by your posts and links, even if you are resolutely app-free.
But how will facial recognition software be used for advertising in a retail setting? From the recent LA Times article by Shan Li and David Sarno: "Picture this: You stop in front of a digital advertising display at a mall and suddenly an ad pops up touting makeup, followed by one for shoes and then one for butter pecan ice cream. It seems to know you're a woman in your late 20s and, in fact, it does. When you looked at the display, it scanned your facial features and tailored its messages to you."
This is not just conjecture about the future; the application is already at work in some locations and companies like Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas are exploring its use in kiosks, vending machines, and on digital signs. Even trendy bars in Chicago are using it to keep the male/female customer ratio in balance and in a designated age range.
Naturally, privacy advocates are concerned about misuse of the software, for example if individuals are identified and the information is used by insurance companies or the government (some police and national security agencies already use it with mixed results). "What if the government starts compiling a database of everyone who shows up to protests?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of [the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center]. "There are so many 1st Amendment and human rights concerns. It's a slippery slope."
And yet, most companies just want to use facial recognition to sell us stuff. Will it work? Perhaps. But there's one interesting twist that's come up. In a popular YouTube video, "HP Computers Are Racist," two retail employees test the facial recognition software in their store computer and discover that it recognizes and follows the white employee but not the black one. The black employee jokingly says that this is proof that HP computers are racist. But I happen to know of more than one black person who would observe that this must be the first time that a surveillance technology has been designed that excludes them based on their appearance!
Are you concerned about the use of facial recognition technology that targets ads to you?