Amid ethical concerns, facial recognition has gained some traction in the US
Identifying shoplifters and fraudsters may make sense for retail, but what about for marketing? And what about face masks?
San Francisco — Deployments of facial recognition from Israeli start-up AnyVision show how the surveillance software has gained adoption across the US even as regulatory and ethical debates about it rage.
The technology finds certain faces in photos or videos, with banks representing one sector that has taken interest in systems from AnyVision or its many competitors, to improve security and service.
Organisations in other industries are chasing similar goals. The Los Angeles hospital Cedars-Sinai and oil giant BP are among several previously unreported users of AnyVision.
Cedars-Sinai’s main hospital uses AnyVision facial recognition to give staff a heads-up about individuals known for violence, drug fraud or using different names at the emergency room, three sources said. Cedars said it “does not publicly discuss our security programmes” and could not confirm the information.
BP has used facial recognition for at least two years at its Houston campus to help security staff detect people on a watchlist because they trespassed before or issued threats, two sources said.
BP declined to comment. AnyVision declined to discuss specific clients or deals.
Gaining additional clients may be difficult for AnyVision amid mounting opposition to facial recognition from civil liberties advocates. Critics say the technology compromises privacy, targets marginalised groups and normalises intrusive surveillance. Last week, 25 social justice groups including Demand Progress and Greenpeace USA called on governments to ban corporate use of facial recognition, according to their open letter.
AnyVision’s CEO Avi Golan, a former SoftBank Vision Fund operating partner who joined the start-up in November, sees a bright future. He said that AnyVision has worked with companies across retail, banking, gaming, sports and energy on uses that should not be banned because they stop crime and boost safety.
“I am a bold advocate for regulation of facial recognition. There’s a potential for abuse of this technology both in terms of bias and privacy,” he said, but “blanket bans are irresponsible.”
The start-up has faced challenges in the past year. AnyVision laid off half of its staff, with deep cuts to research and sales, according to people who have worked for the company as well as customers and partners, all speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The slashing followed the onset of Covid-19 shrinking clients’ budgets, sources said, and investor Microsoft saying in March 2020 it would divest its stake over ethical concerns.
AnyVision announced raising an additional $43m last September.
Macy’s installed AnyVision in 2019 to alert security when known shoplifters entered its store in New York’s Herald Square, five sources said. The deployment expanded to about 15 more New York stores, three sources said, and if not for the pandemic would have reached an additional 15 stores, including on the West Coast.
Macy’s said it uses facial recognition “in a small subset of stores with high incidences of organised retail theft and repeat offenders”.
Menards, a US home improvement chain, has used AnyVision facial recognition to identify known thieves, three sources said. Its system also has alerted staff to the arrival of design centre clients and re-identified them on future visits to improve service, a source said.
Menards said its face mask policy has rendered “any use of facial recognition technology pointless”.
AnyVision, in an online video without naming Menards, has touted its results, and two sources said the companies struck a deal for 290 stores. In 2019, Menards apprehended 54% more potential threats and recovered more than $5m, according to the video.
The US financial services unit of car-maker Mercedes-Benz said it has used AnyVision at its Fort Worth, Texas, offices since 2019 to authenticate about 900 people entering and exiting daily before the pandemic, adding a layer of security on top of building access cards.
Such employee-access applications are a common early use of AnyVision, including at Houston Texans’ and Golden State Warriors’ facilities, sources said. The sports teams declined to comment.
Several deals failed to materialise, however. Among organisations that considered AnyVision early in 2020 were Amazon’s grocery chain Whole Foods to monitor workers at stores, Comcast to enable ticketless experiences at Universal theme parks, and baseball’s Dodger Stadium for suite access, sources said.
Talks with airports in the Dallas and San Francisco areas referenced in public records have also not led to contracts. Universal Parks, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the airports all declined to comment on their interest. Whole Foods did not respond.
Government requirements for surveillance at casinos have made the gaming industry a big purchaser of facial recognition. Las Vegas Sands, for instance, is using AnyVision, three sources said. Sands declined to comment.
MGM Resorts International and Cherokee Nation Entertainment also use AnyVision, representatives of the casino operators said in March.
Ted Whiting of MGM said the software, deployed in 2017 and used at 11 properties including the Aria in Las Vegas, has detected vendors not wearing masks and helped catch patrons accused of violence. MGM said its “surveillance system is designed to adhere to regulatory requirements and support ongoing efforts to keep guests and employees safe”.
Cherokee’s Joshua Anderson said that, in addition to security uses, AnyVision has accelerated coronavirus contact-tracing as the Oklahoma company rolls out the technology across 10 properties.
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