Stores and businesses are using facial recognition, fingerprint scanners or other technology to identify customers in what they say is their fight against crime. But are the tools infringing on civil liberties?
As shoppers get groceries at the Fairway supermarket on Broadway and West 74th Street, there are signs around pointing out navel oranges and blueberries are on sale. There is also a sign alerting the very same shoppers that the supermarket is collecting, retaining, storing and sharing information that identifies them, like eye scans and voiceprints.
Most who were in the Upper West Side store on Wednesday were not aware the sign was even there, and were blissfully unaware of what the store had been doing.
Fairway’s parent company, Wakefern, said that biometric identifier information (BII) is “helping our store reduce retail crime. Only trained asset protection associates use the system, which helps us focus attention on repeat shoplifters.”
The company said that they are following all laws and that “retail theft and shoplifting has a high rate of repeat offense and drives up grocery costs for all customers.”
BII is not new technology. Madison Square Garden Entertainment has come under fire fire for using it to identify people who were barred from attending events at their venues — whether the people knew they were barred or not. The tech has been used at MSG and Radio City Music Hall, which blocked an attorney from entering after she was identified via facial recognition, saying it was because she was involved in a lawsuit against the venue.
Protesters gathered outside a John Mayer concert at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, demanding that the venue stop using the technology. The group called on artists (such as Mayer) to support them by pledging to boycott venues that use facial recognition software, and join their efforts to get biometric surveillance banned in places where the public is being accommodated.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently urged businesses to use facial recognition to fight shoplifting. While some in the supermarket agreed that shoplifting is a problem, and others didn’t have privacy concerns considering all the cameras that are already around the city, the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has a problem with it all.
“Just because they don’t sell it, doesn’t mean — is it being disseminated without selling it? Or that they’re getting that information from other entities. So there’s kind of a loophole there,” said Jermaine Scott, senior counsel and director of the group.
In 2021, New York made it illegal to sell the kind of information that Fairway is collecting, and requires any business using it to notify consumers. Wakefern said they find the technology useful — in addition to other measures — in helping to prevent crime.
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