Still a One-Way Mirror Society – why has progress in retail biometrics and privacy stalled?

Today WPF was quoted in an AP article about cameras that detect age, gender, and emotion being installed in retail stores, Coming to You: Cameras that guess your age and sex. For us, this was deja vu. In 2010, we published a report about cameras in retail settings called The One Way Mirror Society. In this report, which was the first of its kind at the time, we documented and analyzed the camera and biometric uses of that time in retail settings, and discussed privacy impacts. We observed that:

“New forms of sophisticated digital signage networks are being deployed widely by retailers and others in both public and private spaces. From simple people-counting sensors mounted on doorways to sophisticated facial recognition cameras mounted in flat video screens and end-cap displays, digital signage technologies are gathering increasing amounts of detailed information about consumers, their behaviors, and their characteristics.

These technologies are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the offline world, and there is little if any disclosure to consumers that information about behavioral and personal characteristics is being collected and analyzed to create highly targeted advertisements, among other things. In the most sophisticated digital sign networks, for example, individuals watching a video screen will be shown different information based on their age bracket, gender, or ethnicity.”

In 2010 we highlighted some of the problems that could arise from the use of cameras, sensors, and biometrics in retail settings, including: 

  • Repurposing security camera footage for marketing 
  • Lack of transparency to consumers
  • Lack of consent
  • Identification of individuals without transparency
  • Discrimination by age, gender, and ethnicity
  • Data retention issues
  • Sensitive information captured on children and teens
  • Combining offline and online data
  • Capture of health and medical information

Today’s story makes it clear that there is still much more work to be done to create balance regarding privacy and how cameras and biometrics are used in retail spaces. “People who are shopping do not necessarily want to be surprised by discovering after the fact that they were analyzed by gender, age, or emotion,” says Pam Dixon, Executive Director. “There is an urgent need for a meaningful multi-stakeholder dialogue, inclusive of consumers of all ages and genders, to discuss this issue and determine risk points and best practices, and if and when these types of activities are appropriate.”

There is an urgency to making progress in this area because many new kinds of sensors, cameras, and biometric technologies are poised to enter our lives. Biometric technologies are making their way into spaces ranging from airports with e-passport gates to cars equipped with biometrically-enhanced safety systems to retailer spaces that have gender and age identifiers and trackers. It is highly unlikely that anyone can just say a magic word and stop these types of technologies from advancing. That is not the point.

The World Privacy Forum has frequently said that biometric systems must do no harm, and must create a public good. This is not just a theoretical goal or statement; it is a genuine, achievable goal that is imperative for all of us to work toward as we enter a much more complex digital world. In order to do this, it will be essential to develop specific governance principles for the uses of biometrics in retail spaces.

Governance principles will need to be crafted by all stakeholders in a fair way that is trusted and provides for non-dominance and due process. Inward-looking self-regulation is a far cry from what we are describing here. WPF has been discussing ways of facilitating such a process. The goal here is to ensure that we move from a one way mirror society to a two way mirror society, one in which all stakeholders are well-advised and knowledgeable about what is happening with our information, and also one in which all stakeholders are empowered to have an appropriate say in the matter.

It is not enough anymore to just settle for a checkbox or a privacy notice that doesn’t offer any real options; retail customers deserve a seat at the table about how biometric technologies, sensors, and cameras get used in their lives. From 2010 to 2019 we have not made enough progress in improving privacy in biometrics used in retail settings. Let’s not wait any longer to seek meaningful improvements and to start having a dialogue that leads to better trust and better solutions.

Related documents:

Digital Identity Ecosystems

This WPF paper, which was presented at an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School in February 2019, gives an overview of how digital identity works, and outlines solutions to start solving some of the challenging problems in biometrics and identity. 

One Way Mirror Society

This is a WPF report from 2010 in which WPF provided the first broad documentations of cameras in retail spaces and conducted a privacy assessment of the issues, risks, and potential solutions. The technology has grown much more sophisticated since that time, and some improvements have been made, but too many of the problems we documented then have persisted.