Face Recognition Technology Comes to Malls and Nightclubs

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The privacy concerns around the tracking of consumers and targeted advertising online may be coming to the physical world.

At a Federal Trade Commission workshop about the privacy implications of face recognition on Thursday, all eyes were on the new “Find My Face” feature in Google+, announced at the conference. The event, however, also focused on how face detection is being used offline in “smart sign” technology and other applications.

(MORE: Google+ Adds New ‘Find My Face’ Facial Recognition Feature for Photos)

Imagine walking past a sign at the mall that changes to display ads for products that fit just your tastes. That’s what Intel is trying to do with its “Anonymous Video Analytics” technology, which uses sensors on a digital sign to tell if a person nearby is looking at the sign, as well as their gender and approximate age. Teenage girls are shown ads for back-to-school shoe sales, while a senior man may be shown an ad for golf clubs.

Such signs have already been deployed in the wild. At the Venetian resort and casino in Las Vegas, such ads are used to recommend restaurants and clubs targeted at the viewer’s demographic.

A novel use of Intel’s face detection software has been pioneered by SceneTap, an app available for iOS and Android that lets users check out the crowds at bars and clubs before heading out. Cameras installed at local nightlife venues count everyone who enters the establishment and also detects their gender and approximate age. Looking up a bar on your smart phone will show you how packed it is, the male to female ratio, and the average age of each gender.



More advanced face detection technology also attempts to interpret a person’s emotions. Such an advance can potentially help marketers gauge reactions to their ads.

If this is all starting to sound creepy, you should ask yourself, what’s the harm? As long as all the data that’s collected is anonymous—that is, no one can be personally identified by the sensors, just their age and gender—there’s little reason to fear the technology.

Targeted marketing is a mainstay of shopping in the real world. Walk into a department store and a salesperson will approach you to suggest products based on what they’ve gleaned from your appearance—especially your age and gender. Digital signage is the next step in the evolution of such marketing.

Congress, of course, can’t help but investigate. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) recently asked the FTC to look at whether face recognition technology should be regulated.

“As in many fast growing and changing sectors, public policy has not kept pace with the development of this sort of technology,” Rockefeller wrote in a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “The privacy concerns are evident. As the Commerce Committee considers privacy legislation in the future, we will need to understand the capabilities of this technology as well as the privacy and security concerns raised by their development.”

As Congress and the FTC balance the public interest in privacy with the advantages of new tools, let’s hope they take Sen. Rockefeller’s insight to heart: Public policy does indeed have a tough time keeping up with technology. That should be a signal to policy-makers that they shouldn’t be too hasty, lest they strangle a nascent technology while it’s in the cradle.

Smart sign and face detection technology is very new—so new that we don’t really know how consumers will react to it. It’s tempting to want to get out in front privacy concerns, but it would be better to allow the technology to develop and mature a bit before we make any judgments.

MORE: Don’t Blame Facebook for Facial Recognition’s Creepiness