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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

How Facial Recognition Can Be Used to Track You In Stores

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Video camera in a store

What you can do about the growing issue of facial recognition in retail

In our quest to better understand the world around us and how it affects our safety and privacy, we’re going to learn about something called Smart Retail.

Smart Retail is when businesses use various technologies to create an “enhanced shopping experience” for in-person shoppers. That means companies may start or continue to use technology in their stores to find out things like who is shopping with them, the foot traffic of a location, understanding shopping behavior, and of course demographics. And if you are a member of a loyalty program, you might get a special greeting or discount when you walk in.

Knowing what we do about technology and our economy, this sounds like the reasonable next step in brick-and-mortar retail, right? Let's discuss how facial recognition can be used to track you in stores.

Watch the Podcast About Smart Retail and Facial Recognition

Why Smart Retail Is A Privacy Concern

Companies will be using facial recognition to execute these goals. And let’s make an important distinction here. Facial detection and facial recognition are two different things. Some systems detect the face of a human and execute commands like opening a door.

Facial recognition on the other hand matches the unique identifying information of our face and matches it to a stored digital profile to identify and track us.

And this is not something new to retail, some stores are using it now and have been using it for a while.

Did you know that your face was getting logged when you walk into certain stores? Now not every retailer does this, and not every location from a retailer has the technology in place. But let me tell you it’s been the wild west in some places regarding this technology.

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But don’t you think you’d have to give your permission to be tracked at a store especially when they don’t obviously disclose that you are being tracked? And even if I give over my email address or phone number for a loyalty program, that does not mean I give permission to have my face tracked. These are things we need to know and there’s little to no regulation at this time.

Facial Recognition And Loss Prevention

Plus, stores use cameras and facial recognition to spot shoplifters and deny them entry to their stores. This is part of the evolution of loss prevention.

There was a large pharmacy that was using facial recognition to spot repeat shoplifters and they got sued when the system misidentified a shopper. Since then, systems like this have gotten a black eye and companies have said they are not going to use facial recognition. Then some retailers said they would stop, but then they would continue after the news cycle settled down.

The Banana Trick

Recently self-checkout registers at stores have been under fire for using invasive technology, Walmat in particular. Now most of us know that people steal at self-checkouts. They use techniques like the Banna trick to buy items for the wrong price.

The trick is placing a bar code of a cheap item onto an expensive item. To the human monitoring 6 registers at once, it looks like the person scanned the item, but of course, it’s the wrong bar code. And someone just bought a new camera for the price of a banana.

So retailers have to step up their game to prevent theft. That’s why you see the overt screen above the checkout terminal that says you are on camera. Plus there are cameras overhead and down low to check the rest of the cart.

And what can happen at these registers that is not technically facial recognition, is that a snapshot of your face can be taken when you swipe your credit card. That means that when I use my credit card with my name on it, the store takes my picture and saves that information so they have an idea of who I am. But if my credit card is stolen and used at one of these registers, then it’s useful to law enforcement to get an idea of who has my card. So it’s not all bad.

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How Does Facial Recognition Work In Retail Stores?

So how does facial recognition in retail work? Does every store have its own facial recognition software and team to process all of this data? No, they don’t.

What happens is we walk into a store, and the camera on the ceiling snags our faces. You can see these cameras today because sometimes they have an overt camera and monitor that tells you that recording is in progress and that you are on camera.

Then the image of you is sent to a system that analyzes your face and matches you to a digital profile. While that digital profile may be on a server at that location, there is a greater network beyond that. Facial recognition is an expensive endeavor and there are less than a dozen vendors in the US that provide this service.

So our digital profile resides in a massive server somewhere in the world that is being kept by one of only a few companies. My speculation is that these companies share the information in their database with their clients. Why wouldn’t they share their database? It makes them look better to potential clients by showing off their vast network of established profiles.

So if you get tagged in Store A in January, then when you walk into Store B in February, the system will already know who you are even if you’ve never stepped foot in Store B before.

Questions About Smart Retail We Need To Ask

Do these companies have Chinese components? Do these companies work with law enforcement or the US government? Who controls what’s done with our data? Do we have a say in it?

Can you imagine what data mining would look like for data brokers if they could sell our facial recognition data and what we do in brick-and-mortar stores? That is a legitimate concern for the future. I don’t know the answer to all of these questions, but non-profit groups and activists are working on it.

Protecting Yourself From Facial Recognition

Now, this is the point where I tell you how to defeat a problem and how your family can overcome it. However, I don’t have a robust solution.

You can opt out of having your face scanned at the airport, so I suggest you do that. And anywhere else that wants to scan your face, as Disney did for a while, say no. Currently, Disney says they are not using facial recognition for guest identification, however, they did experiment with it in 2021 and fully disclosed what they were doing and why.

You can avoid stores that are using facial recognition like Macy’s. Not every store reports that they use this technology which makes it hard to know which ones are safe. We need to push for some sort of legislation at least at the state level that compels a store to warn you that they are using facial recognition before you enter. Of course, cities like San Francisco have already banned it.

You can also distort your image. There are clothes that companies have created that scramble facial recognition, but they are weird-looking. There is also anti-facial recognition makeup and glasses that you can get.

The jury is still out on whether or not a COVID mask will keep you from getting tagged, but I think it’s worth a shot if you’re really worried about it. I know masks are a controversial topic, but they might be useful when avoiding being recognized at a store. Just consider it.

On social media, you’ll want to avoid tagging yourself in photos. Tagged photos offer a virtual trove of images that can help companies build a profile on you. Your photos can be scraped and added to databases without you knowing.

Of course, technology will become more advanced and we’ll have to change how we do things. For now, we need to voice our concerns at the local, state, and federal levels for the regulation of facial recognition and the databases they create.


Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.


Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

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