Japanese Stores Facial Recognition Sharing

By Carlton Purvis, Published Apr 21, 2014, 12:00am EDT

A controversy is brewing in Japan after a newspaper was tipped off about a practice stores use to combat shoplifting. A network of stores uses facial recognition technology to tag customers as shoplifters and relay that information other stores. In this post we examine the practice and compare it to similar U.S. efforts.

Background

Major Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun reported that stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area have installed facial recognition systems to capture images of shoplifters or customers known for complaints. These images are uploaded into a database for all stores in the network who also have facial recognition systems. The system sends store security alerts when a shoplifter or problem customer comes into the store.

The cameras capture every face that comes in a store, but will only add faces tagged by security to the database. They say the database cannot be “browsed” by stores in the network.

Japan Privacy Concerns

The story from the Japanese newspaper says that under the Personal Information Protection Law images obtained by security are considered personal information which is not to be shared with third parties. Sharing the images among stores may be a violation of that law.

A lawyer the newspaper spoke to said the practice is concerning because it could cause shoppers to get treated unfairly or as suspicious when visiting stores they have never been to and if someone is erroneously added to the database there is no way for them to appeal.

There are also potential issues with accuracy. From what the story says, these pictures are being taken from surveillance cameras and compared to other images taken from surveillance cameras -- not surveillance camera images being compared to head-on photos like driver's licenses or employee photos for example.

Sharing Shoplifter Images in the U.S.

In contrast, the practice of sharing images among retail stores is common in the United States. It’s not in the form of facial recognition technology, but there is an information sharing portal for the major retailers where they can share video, images and descriptions of shoplifters that was created to help combat organized retail crime.

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A less technologically advanced form of this has been common in the U.S. for a while: Stores distributing printouts of images of shoplifters to other retailers in the area.

Another difference is that in the U.S., when someone gets caught shoplifting bigger stores will take a photo of them when they're caught and add them to a company-wide BOLO database or paste them on bulletin boards. In the case of the Japanese systems, people don't know their photos are being collected.

Hard to Find What Stores Are Using the Technology

It has been difficult to find out which stores use the technology. The story does not say what company makes the technology or name any of the stores using it so IPVM contacted several supermarkets (both big and small) in Tokyo. None of them said they were using this software or declined to answer. The new story says 115 stores among 50 different companies are using the technology.

Assuming this technology works as well as the manufacturer claims in the story, do you think it is violating privacy to share these photos and to unknowingly tag people as shoplifters?

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