2013-01-11 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Such A Pretty Face
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

You walk into your neighborhood supermarket, passing a digital sign that displays advertising. Using facial recognition technology, it reads your face and displays an advertisement for a sale on diapers.

Is the ad for Pampers or Depend?

Until recently, because of high costs and limited accuracy, companies have not used facial recognition technology on a widespread basis. But this is changing.

A retail space can use facial recognition technology to serve tailored advertising to its customers. A digital sign equipped with a camera determines the demographic characteristics – age range and gender – of a consumer’s face, then delivers a targeted advertisement in real-time to the consumer.

When a person between the ages of 25 and 35 passes by the sign, the technology may detect her demographic as belonging to a group having small children, and serve her an ad for kids’ yogurt. A passerby having a 55 to 65- year old demographic may be served with an ad for vitamins for seniors.

Generally, in this use of the technology, detected images are not retained for future use. Advertisers believe these ads are highly relevant and can lead to more sales.

While there is no law specifically regulating facial recognition technology, industry groups have developed selfregulatory codes on digital signage use. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, issued a staff report on best practices.

According to these codes and the FTC, companies should not locate signage in sensitive areas, like bathrooms, locker rooms, health care facilities, or places where children gather. Further, consumers should be given clear notice before they come into contact with the sign that the technology is in use.

Other types of facial recognition technology that use retained images raise additional privacy issues. These include (1) the use by social networks of a member’s uploaded, “tagged” images to identify other formerly unidentified images (provided the tagged images are of a “friend” or online contact), and (2) the prospect of future widespread commercial use of the technology to identify anonymous individuals in public places or in unidentified online photos.

In the latter situation, companies could use the technology to collect images and match them with other information, such as your name. Once you are identified, you could be targeted with highly personalized adds based on past purchases, or other personal information available about you online.

Companies using any type of facial recognition technology should implement privacy protections appropriate for the context of their relationship, and the particular use of the technology, with consumers. Consumers should be made aware of what’s going on, and have a choice about whether to be subjected to the technology.

Personally, I have yet to pass a digital sign that uses facial recognition to serve a targeted ad to me, but I can’t wait to get sized up. People are always telling me I look young for my age. I look forward to getting an objective opinion!

* * * This column, inadvertently partially printed in the December 7th, 2012 edition of The Wave, is reprinted here in its entirety.

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