Facial recognition – coming soon to a shopping mall near you

Facial recognition - coming soon to a shopping mall near you

Facial recognition. Image courtesy of ShutterstockTechnology giant NEC’s Hong Kong branch is promoting a small, “easy to install” appliance which will enable businesses to monitor their customers based on facial recognition.

From a recent NEC press release:

The new Mobile Facial Recognition Appliance enables organizations in any industry to offer an ultra-personalized customer experience by recognizing the face of each and every customer as soon as they set foot on the premises.

Face recognition is becoming ever more sophisticated and accurate, bringing automated detection and tracking of people by the way they look within reach of all sorts of people.

For law enforcement this technology is, of course, a dream. Despite limited success in the real world, any modern conspiracy thriller worth its salt includes a scene where creepily intrusive/heroically hardworking forces of law and order are shown to be able to find anyone passing near any security camera, and follow them around with minimal effort.

With the FBI’s latest plans to expand facial recognition data this sort of thing comes another step closer to reality.

It’s not just the feds and the snoops that love the idea though. In the business world, who people are and what they’re up to has become the basis of a massive industry, with big data on anyone and everyone being used to hone and target advertising and promotions in an effort to suck in a few more customers.

So it should come as little surprise that developers of facial recognition technology are targeting their solutions at the commercial sector.

In the past we’ve seen businesses trying to monitor potential customers by tracking their mobile devices – examples of shops and marketeers watching how people circulate around their premises using WiFi include the infamous WiFi-sniffing rubbish bins.

Of course, there are ways of hiding from this kind of snooping – disabling WiFi when away from known and trusted hotspots, shutting down unnecessary location services, or simply not carrying a smartphone, can keep us out of the databases of the monitoring firms.

But our faces are less easy to leave behind. Everyone has some kind of face, some more pleasant to look at than others, and most of us, barring those with cultural or religious reasons to keep them hidden, parade around with them on plain view.

Unlike other biometrics such as fingerprints or body odour, our faces can be observed with usable accuracy from considerable distances, often without us being aware of being watched.

Mall. Image courtesy of ShutterstockSo they are the ideal metric for commercial as well as security monitoring. No need to hope people have their devices with them and keep them open to sniffing; just a quick look, and a look-up, and you can tell who it that’s walking in, and the kind of stuff they might be nudged into spending their cash on.

It goes further though. Faces are not just a signpost to who we are, they also say a lot about what we’re thinking and feeling.

"The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart." - St Jerome

The human brain learns to pick up on emotional clues from facial expressions within about six months from birth. As technology to mimic this perception advances, it surely won’t be long before we’re not just spotting people passing our cameras, but working out what their expressions reveal.

Combined with the vast amounts of data linked to our identities across the internet, this promises massive potential insight into our lives.

It’s not going to be much of a step from the animated billboard by the escalator blaring out “Hi Dave, long time no see, need some new underwear?” to “Hi Dave, you look a bit down today, and I see Janine’s Facebook status shows she’s newly single, maybe some gin would be good about now?”

For now at least the official product page for NEC Hong Kong’s latest innovation focuses heavily on security implementations – airports and other borders and barriers, “criminological work” – mentioning customer management potential only towards the end of the list.

The press release reveals a much more worrying focus on commercial applications though.

Any advance along this road is another nail in the coffin of privacy. Whether you think privacy is an outdated concept, or continue to value it highly, it’s hard to deny the ever-growing encroachment of both The Man and commercial interests into what used to be our private lives.

We could be due for a boom in sales of Groucho glasses.

Image of facial recognition and mall courtesy of Shutterstock.