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Facial recognition could transform retail but what about privacy and customer experience?

Retailers have long been fighting the battle between online and in-store. With the current crisis forcing many customers to find new ways of conducting their shopping, could transformative in-store technology provide the impetus to drive more customers back in-store, once the dust settles?

 

For a long time, large-scale use of facial recognition by retailers has been the stuff of science fiction, most memorably in the 2002 film Minority Report, which depicts targeted adverts and bespoke shopping recommendations being automatically served to customers based on their profile and known preferences.

But, in terms of the technological capabilities, that future has arrived, and we are already seeing real retail applications for facial recognition technology around the world.

These include convenience stores using it to detect known shoplifters, a pub using it to prevent queue-jumping and stop people waiting at the bar from being overlooked for service, and restaurants and cafés using it to identify regulars and make it quicker for them to select exactly what they want.

Late in 2019, a Spanish grocery store announced it had started taking payment from customers using the technology and Walmart has even filed a patent for a facial-recognition system that can gauge the mood of individual shoppers so that stores can respond more quickly to customer-service issues.

 

Revolutionary technology

Rhys David, CEO of identity verification specialist Credas believes the potential of the technology is wide-reaching, particularly when it comes to letting retail businesses get to know their customers better. He said: “Facial recognition technology has already been around for a long time and it’s dizzying how many use cases the technology can be applied to.

“Whether you want to improve the shopping experience or understand as a customer walks into a store what their preferences are or identify known shoplifters and cut the significant cost of theft, the technology is already there. And, it is getting better and better all the time as both imaging systems and the algorithms that analyse the pictures improve at an extremely rapid pace.”

But, despite the significant steps the technology has made, there remain some significant concerns both in the public and in government over the privacy implications of facial recognition.

IBM, a major player in facial recognition, announced in June, 2020 that it would stop selling and developing the technology because of the potential for it to be abused for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of basic human rights and freedoms.

It has called for a debate to lay down ground rules for responsible use of the technology by the police and other authorities.


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The privacy debate

The information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who leads the UK’s privacy watchdog, has expressed concerns over facial recognition technology, and has said it is an area that is under close scrutiny. Commenting in the Guardian recently, she said: “Scanning people’s faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives in order to identify them is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all. That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.”

“My office and the judiciary are both independently considering the legal issues and whether the current framework has kept pace with emerging technologies and people’s expectations about how their most sensitive personal data is used.”

But many of those developing the technology believe the only way it will be able to win over the public at large is for it to prove itself in real-world testing. Rhys David continued: “When it comes to privacy, it’s important to note that in most cases, the technology is being implemented to keep us safe with as little inconvenience possible.

“It’s very frustrating when lobby groups try to shut FR development down because it’s not tested properly. The fact is that it can’t be tested properly without being tried in a live environment. If we are going to unlock the vast potential of the technology as a nation, we need to get behind it and start carrying out trials.

“The adopters of this technology really need to do a better job of PR-ing why they are doing what they are doing, and it boils down to keeping us safe and giving us extra convenience.”

 

Design challenges

But privacy concerns aren’t the only barriers retailers will need to overcome to keep customers on board when implementing facial recognition technology – they will also have to ensure it enhances rather than detracts from the customer experience.

Rhys David continued: “Retailers will be able to tailor shopping experiences to customers based on their known habits. This programmatic approach could mean a more personalised experience in physical stores than has ever been possible before. That’s provided the right consents are in place under GDPR, of course.

“But implementing this won’t be without significant challenges, and retailers will have to carefully manage the same balance that online retailers have been wrestling with for several years – making effective suggestions without being obtrusive and putting customers off with a hard sell and driving them away.”

But, he believes that things are steadily moving in the direction of increased adoption, and that huge gains have been made in terms of the public acceptance of the technology: “There has been a huge shift in public perception in just the past five years. Not so long ago, it still felt space age, but now a much larger number of people are accepting of the benefits of facial recognition.

“Consider how it is now being used by millions of people to unlock their phone each time they use it.

“Many people, even older people who the cliché would have you believe would be more sceptical, have no problem with it once they experience the increase in convenience it can bring.”

 

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