Biz, consumers not eyeing face recognition tech

Face recognition software may offer businesses targeted marketing and advertising opportunities, industry watchers note, but privacy advocates and consumers say privacy issues a concern.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Face recognition technology are increasingly used by companies for marketing and advertising purposes but privacy advocates, retailers and consumers not keen on such implementations because of potential privacy leaks and diminished personal space.

In the United States, facial detection and recognition software are being used for personalized marketing. SceneTap, for example, is an app for smartphones that uses the device's camera--enabled with facial detection software--to scout bars with. Information such as the average age of a bar's crowd will be posted online to help people determine if they want to patronize it, according to a New York Times report.

The same report also identified Immersive Labs as another software developer using facial recognition software for use in digital billboards. Cameras are installed on these smart signboards to capture the age range, sex and attention level of passersby in order to deliver ads based on consumers' demographics, it stated.

Consumers benefit, but consent lacking
Commenting on this development, Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said such facial recognition systems do provide personalized advertising that is beneficial to consumers. That said, the real benefit is to the advertisers and companies deploying the software, he added in his e-mail.

Bryan Tan, director at Keystone Law Corporation and a blogger for ZDNet Asia, added such systems help replace a salesperson or promoter at a retail outlet. "Rather than rely on the human to target specific people, the computer [system] can offer a wider range of products."

However, Stephens said companies deploying facial recognition tech generally provide no notice or opportunity for consumers to consent to having their behavior analyzed for marketing or other purposes.

He also noted such technology is susceptible to "mission creep". Elaborating, he said software initially developed for one purpose may then push the boundaries and be utilized for expanded and unrelated purposes such as surveillance.

A spokesperson from Privacy International added that whether consumers' privacy is compromised depends on how the software works. It appears that people's faces are detected by video surveillance cameras equipped with computer algorithms, he said, but it is unknown if the information captured is retained, and if so, for how long.

If the information is not retained, people's privacy is being "somewhat protected", he stated. However, facial detection used in digital billboards is more problematic because opting out of such service seems impossible and backend issues such as how the data is stored and who has access to the information might fall afoul of privacy regulations.

In Singapore, Ang Kai Hsiang, a lawyer at Baker & MacKenzie, Wong & Leow, told ZDNet Asia that there are no specific data or privacy legislations now, so the use of facial recognition technology will not raise legal concerns.

However, the country is currently formulating its Data Protection Bill and, when passed, might have legal ramifications on the use of facial recognition software in areas such as whether consumers' consent were obtained before collecting their personal data, Ang pointed out.

Bryan Tan, director of Keystone Law Corporation and who also blogs for ZDNet Asia, added that some people believe privacy is a right to be left alone.

"Something like this aimed at providing messaging to consumers violates that right and consumers should have the right to choose whether they want those messages," he said.

As such, Stephens called for better disclosures about when and how information are being collected and used, prohibitions on usage at certain locations, better ways for consumers to control how their data is captured and used and special rules for the collection of images and information of children.

Low interest shown
Two Singapore bars ZDNet Asia spoke to had mixed feelings regarding the use of such technology for marketing and advertising.

Timothy Chia, head of marketing and events at Zouk Singapore, said the club will only consider deploying such software if it is proven to be effective and helps market the club and parties it organize to the right consumer audience.

"In terms of club operations, there are also opportunities to utilize this technology to further enhance our CRM (customer relationship management) system, especially with regard to our membership management," he added.

On the other hand, Margaret Marshall, marketing and sales director at Brewerkz, stressed that customers will have to opt for the technology and enjoy certain benefits before it considers implementing such technology.

"If it is facial recognition for brand advertising, it won't work for us," Marshall said. "It must have added value for our customers."

Consumers, however, were against the idea.

Lin Surong, a researcher, told ZDNet Asia that she would avoid bars that use facial recognition software because she will feel "controlled". "You are being watched and the bar or club is acting like it knows me so well. It is freaky and annoying at the same time."

Student Bryan Wong spoke out against the use too, noting that people are already being constantly bombarded by advertisements in both physical and online realms. "Going to a bar or club and getting more targeted ads will not be a form of relaxation for me anymore," he stated.

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