Facial recognition software being used at businesses

March 19, 2012 3:47:54 PM PDT
Most everyone has heard about the ability to tag photos on Facebook using facial recognition software, but did you know the special technology is also in use in other areas of our lives, including retail stores and restaurants, even bars? It may sound like a page out of a sci-fi novel, but the technology is here and how it's being used might surprise you.

It's Friday night, you walk into a new bar. They check your ID, but that's not all they may be checking. A growing number of bars and other businesses are using facial recognition software.

"It's helpful to businesses who want to know who their customers are," said Rafe Needleman, editor-at-large of cnet.com.

Needleman says some malls are also testing the technology.

"They will recognize your age or your gender, so if you walk up to a display wall at a retail establishment or mall or something like that, and if you're a mid 40s white guy, maybe they'll give you an ad for a BMW. If you're a woman in your 20s, maybe you'll see something else," Needleman said.

Privacy is one of the biggest concerns the Federal Trade Commission has with this technology. Take a recent study at Carnegie Mellon, for example.

"They took photos from a dating site where many people were anonymous or using pseudonyms and they also got information from a social networking site where they had in general people's real names. Using facial recognition technology, they were able to identify a lot of those users who had been anonymous on the dating site," Eichorn said.

And while bars that are using this technology now say it's a marketing tool...

"What's being used right now are apps that will look at a business -- say a bar -- and see how many men versus women there are, or their ages, so you can see what the scene is like at the bar," Needleman said.

So it's not just a privacy issue, but safety as well. The FTC is worried about where this technology can take us.

"Is it a notice and consent model, like we have online? Are there places it shouldn't be permitted, like in bathrooms?" Eichorn said.

Until that's all ironed out, Needleman says anything is possible.

"It's not out of the question that we'll walk down the street 10 years from now, and people will be wearing camouflage so they're not picked up by facial recognition trackers all over the place," Needleman said.

The FTC has taken community feedback on this issue in the past several months and is considering publishing recommendations for businesses to follow.