Walmart’s Facial Recognition Software: Anti-Shoplifting Or Anti-Consumer?

How far should retailers go to stop shoplifting in their stores? If the solutions used resemble something from “1984” or “Minority Report,” retailers might want to take a step back and think it over.

That is the position Walmart finds itself in after implementing high-tech yet potentially invasive anti-shoplifting technologies into its stores earlier this year, Fortune reported. The system in question, which they allegedly ended after several months, used cameras to scan the faces of shoppers entering a Walmart location, determine suspected shoplifters and alert security personnel via their smartphones to intercept, identify and, if need be, stop the alleged shoplifter in his or her tracks.

While Walmart and FaceFirst, the Southern California company that provides the face recognition software, believe that the technology can quickly and reliably check the faces of incoming customers against a database of photos from known perpetrators, not everyone is convinced that the public is ready to consent to this type of passive interaction with retailers. Jeffrey Neuburger, lawyer and head of privacy and data security at Proskauer, told Fortune that most don’t have a clue that this type of technology is being used — whether they consent to it or not.

“I don’t think people are fully aware of it,” Neuburger said. “People see tagging in Facebook and Shutterfly. But I don’t think they’re fully aware that when they walk into a retailer, their face might be scanned and added to a database.”

Retailers feeling the pressure of shrinking profit margins might see more stringent anti-shoplifting solutions as a way to win back a percentage of shrink they see vanish from their shelves every year, but, as Neuburger pointed out, the lack of consumer awareness of these technologies puts merchants between a rock and a hard place. Do they scrap the technology or offer opt-outs to all consumers, or do they push ahead knowing there might be some long nights for public relations when stories about face recognition software blow up?

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