Recent weeks have brought controversy over electronic billboards in restaurants and shopping precincts that utilize advanced facial recognition techniques to not only provide personalized advertisements but also measure and record the consumer and their response, ostensibly to enable retailers to provide more targeted marketing and services.
In Oslo, the restaurant Peppe’s Pizza had its usage of such billboards exposed due to a crashed digital advertisement that revealed the coding behind its facial recognition system. The billboard includes a camera and facial recognition software that can register gender, whether the watcher is young or an adult, facial expression, whether they wear glasses. and duration of time spent at the billboard.
“Your attention (and the meta-data associated with it) is being relayed to advertisers without your permission or awareness, and there is no way to opt–out. This is the crux of the problem. There’s no transparency, there is no obvious notice, and there’s no way to opt–out. This is an erosion of our privacy. I feel this is unacceptable.”
In wanting to gain insight into the thinking behind the use of AI and facial recognition software in marketing, I spoke to Artem Kuharenko, founder of facial recognition company, NTechLab. They developed a facial recognition algorithm based on neural networks which won Washington University’s Megaface facial recognition challenge in November 2015, beating 90 other teams including Google’s Facenet.
It was later used to power FindFace, allowing anyone to snap a photo with their smartphone, upload it to the service and find that person’s social media account in less than a second. It helps Twitter users to protect their identities, find long-lost friends and relatives, and identify new potential connections. FindFace can also search the largest social network of Eastern Europe, VK, where it has already been used to solve cold cases and identify criminals.
They’ve recently announced that their technology can now detect emotions, age, and gender. They believe this will have “big implications for our projects in retail and security, including allowing CCTV cameras to detect potential criminals and fugitives by marking them as suspicious if they express emotions like fear, hatred, or nervousness.”
I asked Kuharenko his thoughts about the use of electronic billboards embedded with facial recognition tech. He commented:
” I think that there is nothing wrong with the fact that the business is trying to better understand the perception of its marketing message to customers. They study the demand and the business has been doing this for the whole history of mankind. Right now, using information from beacons and WiFi routers they aggregate huge amounts of information about you: where you live, buzz, what places you visit. By analyzing your online profile large aggregators collect all the information about your preferences and hobbies. Thus, the analysis of the emotional-demographic profile is the norm for the modern world.”
I was interested thus in learning about how much control a startup (or any business) would have over the use cases of their tech. Kuharenko explained to me that their facial recognition services were already being used in some shopping malls to monitor the emotions of people entering and leaving the mall. He further stated:
“Our mission is to make the world a safer and a more comfortable place. Our product strategy and all projects implemented using our technology are aimed at achieving this purpose. Any technology can be used for both harm and good. We believe that the positive effect of global implementation will exceed the number of controversial cases by millions of times. It is strange to expect that in the era of private space flights, virtual augmented reality and the digital economy, the information transparency of a person will remain at the level of 50 years ago. People need to rebuild their minds and rethink the notion of privacy.”
Security vs. privacy vs. personalized reality
The crux of the issue seems to be how to balance the different use cases and of facial recognition tech and their potential consequences. People overwhelmingly want the option to consent to the use of the tech (even though cameras are widespread in most public places), including restaurants and shopping malls. Kuharenko commented when asked about the issue of increased public surveillance (including in Moscow where over 150,000 CCTV cameras have been installed:
” We prefer to talk about the implementation of a total system of video surveillance and face recognition from the point of view that it will help the police to find a terrorist faster and more efficiently, identify a maniac and prevent a crime. The problem of total surveillance is not a matter of introducing technologies, but the issue of control over their use, the powers of law enforcement bodies and their control over society.”
Another kind of crime detection?
The use cases of facial recognition tech seem subject only to the imagination. Today we’ve seen the use of a French education provider utilizing the tech to determine if students are paying attention during remote learning. Recently six machines were recently installed in Beijing at Temple of Heaven Park to police the toilet paper. The tourist attraction is reportedly frequented by visitors who take large amounts of toilet paper home and the subsequently the machines scan visitors’ faces before dispensing a fixed length strip of paper.
“Given the population of China, monitoring the use of toilet paper can actually lead to significant savings. Jokes aside, this example presents the commoditization of technology and for this exact reason — testing the concepts of facial recognition applications in non-standard scenarios — we created our cloud solution.”
While the increasing use of facial recognition in crime prevention and detection in public spaces is controversial, its’ good arguably outweighs the lack of privacy. Yet facial recognition tech for marketing and retail purposes is less compelling, especially as we don’t know how advanced the AI could get in the future. As Sarhan comments:
“This is not a criticism of technology…. Rather, this is an opportunity to have a discussion about how we protect and preserve our freedom to remain untracked and anonymous when on public property.”