Facial recognition: Could the risks outweigh the rewards?

Facial recognition offers brands better ways to personalise marketing, but the privacy questions and risks are substantial, warn experts

Taylor Swift doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking about facial recognition. Yet the Grammy award winning singer has reportedly used the technology at her concerts to identify stalkers.

The power to identify faces is undisputed and has many useful applications beyond spotting serial harassers. Yet facial identification poses significant privacy challenges.

For marketers, facial recognition technology offers an irresistible proposition: More responsive advertising, customer identification, rich insights and analytics. Through the use of heat maps, eyeball tracking and more, deployed through almost any device with a camera, the possibilities are potentially endless.

Lately, however, facial recognition has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Tech giants like Microsoft have faced criticism of their systems on the grounds of privacy, with privacy advocates arguing such personal identification is invasive and protections haven’t kept pace with the growth of the technology. Researchers have also accused systems developed by IBM and Amazon of producing bias results.

There's no doubt a rich Web of personal information can be created about people through their digital trail and facial recognition hyper-personalises this information, CEO of social network PikMobile and founder of mobile advertising platform Zave Networks, Scott Relf, explains to CMO.

“I think it’s [facial recognition] a very important tool. But it raises a whole bunch of privacy considerations," he says. "Folks have become comfortable with data being collected about them by the businesses they’re engaging with. The privacy issue starts to become a concern when these different businesses share information without the person really knowing what’s going on. In some cases, they're giving or selling the data to a third-party, which combines the data, and then it’s even one step removed."

In many cases, facial recognition is being used without a person's consent. "That same facial recognition ID allows the data about you to be matched up with the data about you from everywhere else because the matching can occur based on facial recognition," Relf says. "This network of data about a person can be matched together even better than before.”

The heightened focus is triggering lawmakers and legislators in the US to mull legal protections against the spread of systems that can record and track people. Prompting this are privacy advocates, who argue for limits and protections against systems they say are invasive but often shrouded in secrecy.

Closer to home, a Queensland Police report found its facial recognition system was rolled out too quickly and had limited usefulness during the Commonwealth Games.

Facial recognition in marketing

Use cases are two-fold. Shopping centres, individual stores and retail precincts can use facial recognition to identify VIP shoppers and target them with promotions or offers. Or the technology can be used to identify potential shoplifters within a crowd as a way to curb organised shoplifting crime.

“Shoplifting and organised retail crime are compelling security reasons. In a store or mall, tracking people for recognition, people may be sensitive to that, but I think retailers are equally sensitive to that and they don’t want to discourage shoppers by making them feel they are individually under personal surveillance," Gartner research director, Nick Ingelbrecht, says. "There are instances where malls have removed technology because of privacy concerns around such as with Wi-Fi tracking so there is that kind of negotiation going on."

Proponents argue facial recognition is too useful to be ignored. While aiding police and lawmakers in finding criminals and even potential terrorists is an easier sell, it has many helpful use cases for responsive marketing and improves customer service and customer experience.

Already, an app has been developed using facial recognition to identify someone such as a businesses contacts by tapping a facial database, speeding through hotel and airport check-in, personalised in-store marketing and online registration, customer loyalty and discount schemes are just a few of the customer applications aimed at personalising and streamlining services.

Relf believes people are becoming comfortable with the concept and usefulness of facial recognition, whether it might be Facebook easily identifying and tagging photos of friends, enjoying streamlined check-in at hotels or restaurants that use the systems to better manage customer flow in busy times or aid regulars to order their favourite dish. At the same time, they may not grasp the implications of when their data is outside of their control. Which means businesses have a responsibility to safely protect and manage this personal data.

“IT professionals are in a very delicate spot because their business needs this technology to do their own business better. But they also now have to be very careful where that data with the facial matching piece goes, especially outside their business,” Relf says.

The cost of the technology, Ingelbrecht says, means there needs to be a solid business case behind any facial recognition system.

“This isn’t cheap technology, so there’s got to be a business rationale for deploying it. A chain like WalMart tried it and decided there wasn’t an ROI to justify the investment,” he notes.

Ingelbrecht also suggests businesses, at least in the retail context, aren’t keen to cross the creepy line with potential shoppers and this will help curb the intrusiveness of facial recognition systems in malls and shopping precincts.

“It’s a negotiation between consumers and service providers, so in an airport or retail store, you expect cameras will be there and part is for safety and equally for theft. But when it comes to facial recognition and tracking shoppers through a store, people may be sensitive to that," he continues. "Retailers are equally sensitive to that and they don’t want to discourage shoppers by making them feel they are individually under surveillance.”

Up next: How it works, where the legal issues are lying, and what businesses should do to embrace facial recognition

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