Activists Urge Retailers to Halt Facial Recognition Use

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A new coalition of civil rights organizations is calling on retailers to stop using facial recognition tools to screen shoppers, saying the technology can lead to abuses.

More than 35 organizations, including Public Citizen and the National Lawyers Guild, have joined the campaign urging companies such as Albertsons Cos. and Macy’s Inc. not to use facial recognition screening tools on employees or customers, citing concerns over privacy and racial justice, the group said in a statement Wednesday. The coalition plans to use social media to call out retailers using the tools, it said.

“Companies say they offer facial recognition in the name of ‘convenience’ and ‘personalization,’ but their real priorities are protecting and predicting their profits, ignoring how they abuse peoples’ rights,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, one of the group’s leading the effort.

Facial recognition software has drawn increasing criticism from privacy and civil rights groups. People of color are disproportionately misidentified by facial recognition systems, which has lead to wrongful arrests. On Tuesday, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for regulation of the technology during a House hearing on the topic, saying use of the technology may violate constitutional rights and due process.

Shoppers Targeted

Retailers sometimes use facial recognition to filter customers -- keeping out those believed to be shoplifters or giving preferential treatment to high spenders.

Fight for the Future said such technology could facilitate the exclusion of low-income shoppers, the exploitation of workers or the reporting of undocumented people to immigration officials.

The Fight for the Future campaign includes a scorecard that keeps track of whether major retailers have committed to not using the controversial form of artificial intelligence. Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. have said that they don’t use it, the group said. Albertsons, Macy’s and Lowe’s Cos. are among the companies that do, according to Fight for the Future.

Lowe’s, which is being sued in Illinois for using facial recognition, said on its website that it may use video tracking “to enhance security, protect against theft and other crimes and to monitor in-store traffic patterns, customer counts and interests, and perform similar analytics.”

Lowe’s said Thursday in an email that it doesn’t collect biometric or facial-recognition data in its stores.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, another activist group, said in an interview that while public opposition to the use of the technology has grown, it has largely focused on the government and overlooked private companies. Data collected by corporations is often shared with law enforcement agencies, he said.

“When we allow these private companies to transform our faces into a tracking tool, it’s not just giving the companies a lot of power to track us, it’s enabling them to fuel a lot of these nightmare policing scenarios,” he said.

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