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Facial-recognition technology gets a smack in the chops from civil rights campaigners

US retailers accused of privacy invasion

Updated Civil rights campaigners in the US have called on retailers to stop using facial-recognition technology amid worrying privacy concerns and fears that it could lead to people being wrongly arrested.

Fight for the Future – which is made up of more than 35 organisations including the Consumer Federation of America, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) – says people's faces should not be scanned, stored, or sold just because they stroll into a shop or work in a store.

While Fight for the Future claims retail giants such as Walmart and Kroger have said they would not deploy facial recognition in stores, it claims others – including Macy's, Albertsons, and Lowe's – are still using the technology.

A spokesperson for Lowe's told The Register Fight for the Future is wrong, adding: "Lowe’s does not collect biometric or facial recognition data in our stores."

McDonald's, 7-11, and Best Buy are among retailers that have not clarified their policies, the group said in a statement, while Home Depot, Target, Costco, and Verizon don't have plans to use facial recognition in their stores.

Supporters of facial recognition claim it helps with security by identifying shoplifters and potentially suspect behaviour. They also claim it can be used to personalise in-store marketing and improve customer service.

Some banks in America have already been installing cameras with machine-learning software to keep an eye on people, claiming it'll help reduce fraud while monitoring potentially criminal activity near ATMs.

Opponents claim the technology is a major infringement to civil liberties.

"Face surveillance in stores is an assault on our human rights," said Jennifer Brody, US Advocacy Manager at digital civil rights outfit Access Now.

"Corporations' attempts to determine what demographic 'box' we fit into based on our facial features and expressions is a clear invasion of privacy. These surveillance systems perpetuate systemic discrimination, and must be stopped."

Tracy Rosenberg, Advocacy Director at Oakland Privacy, which campaigns on issues regarding the use of surveillance techniques and equipment, said consumers should not be spied on just to go shopping for books or clothes.

"This biased software has already put people in jail for crimes they did not commit. Being vetted for our suitability to shop is an authoritarian nightmare, not the free and democratic society we want and expect."

What's clear is that the issue is of digital civil rights is already gaining increased traction among legislators. Recently, the State of Maine introduced what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described as the "strongest state facial-recognition law in the US" banning officials from using the tech except in a limited number of circumstances. ®

Editor's note: This article was updated to include comment from Lowe's.

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