Skip to main content

    Retail stores are packed with unchecked facial recognition, civil rights organizations say

    Retail stores are packed with unchecked facial recognition, civil rights organizations say


    Lowe’s, Albertsons, Macy’s are already using the tech

    Share this story

    Illustrative art of a person with facial tracking guides imposed over their face.

    More than 35 organizations are demanding top US retailers cease using facial recognition to identify shoppers and employees in their stores, which companies have used to deter theft and identify shoplifters.

    The campaign is aptly named Ban Facial Recognition in Stores, and has identified stores that have committed to not using facial recognition, like Walmart, Home Depot, and Target. It is now pressuring companies currently using the technology, or those who might use it in the future. Some companies that are currently using the technology, according to the website, include Apple, Lowe’s, Albertsons, Macy’s, and Ace Hardware. Apple tells The Verge that it does not use facial recognition in its stores.

    Companies that might use it in the future include McDonalds, Walgreens, and 7-Eleven. A full list can be found on the website.

    Privacy non-profit Fight for the Future organized the campaign last month as part of its larger Ban Facial Recognition project, and but has now garnered support from civil rights organizations like Mijente, Public Citizen, and Data for Black Lives, as well as others like the Consumer Federation of America and the Tor Project.

    Tawana Petty, the national organizing director at Data for Black Lives, explains in the campaign’s press release that Detroit has implemented Project Green Light, which places surveillance cameras with facial recognition in more than 700 businesses.

    “These cameras using facial recognition are monitored at real-time crime centers, police precincts, and on officers’ mobile devices 24/7,” she said. “It’s difficult to explain the psychological toll it takes on a community, knowing that your every move is being monitored by a racially biased algorithm with the power to yank your freedom away from you.”

    Retailers have used invasive technologies like products that ping your phone’s Bluetooth and then catalog its unique MAC address, but AI-powered upgrades to video surveillance systems have allowed features like facial recognition to be more accessible than ever.

    For instance, Rite-Aid quietly installed facial recognition cameras in hundreds of US stores, mostly in non-white and lower-income neighborhoods, Reuters reported in July 2020. The cameras scanned shoppers’ faces to try and find people in the store who were previously suspected of criminal activity and then sent alerts to security.

    Walmart also reportedly used Clearview AI’s facial recognition more than 300 times, according to BuzzFeed News, and had previously used the technology to try and catch shoplifters. Now, it seems to be taking a different approach by using AI to find un-scanned goods in self-checkout kiosks.

    Since these stores are private property, companies are not bound by state or local regulations banning government use of facial recognition which have been the most popular form of regulation. Only Portland, Oregon has included private businesses in a facial recognition ban.

    Fight for the Future also points out that the coronavirus pandemic has expanded the use of facial recognition-adjacent surveillance in stores, which includes software for customer counting and social distancing.

    Correction, July 14th, 2021, 2:35PM ET: This article previously stated that facial recognition company Kairos supported the Ban Facial Recognition in Stores campaign. However, the organization supporting the campaign is in fact Kairos Action, a civil rights nonprofit. 

    Update: July 14th, 2021, 10:15PM ET: Updated with statement from Apple.