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What do Facial Recognition Bans Mean for Digital out of Home Advertising?

10 July 2019

Over the last few years, innovations in facial recognition technology have evolved as fast as public disapproval of the technology. In May this year, San Francisco banned its government agencies from using facial recognition tech, making the city the first to do so. Somerville, Massachusetts followed, and the cities of Oakland and Berkley are also considering bans this week.

What are the use Cases for Facial Recognition Technology?

Chinese police have started testing augmented reality glasses connected to facial recognition technology, enabling them to identify potential suspects in a crowd. The AR glasses can display people’s information in real time and also identify citizen fingerprints and verify identity cards. The data captured can be dispatched securely via video transfer to the command centre.


You can also 'pay with your face' across various retailers including 7 Eleven, KFC, and Caliburger.

Airports everywhere from Sydney to Orlando are using the technology to streamline processes and make lines move faster.

Matthew Brennan@mbrennanchina

Wow! China Airport face recognition systems to help you check your flight status and find the way to your gate. Note I did not input anything, it accurately identified my full flight information from my face!

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10:00 AM - Mar 24, 2019

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The tech has also been used to find missing children, and by people with gambling problems to uphold bans from visiting casinos. One of the more bizarre use cases is its use to restrict people in China from stealing toilet paper from public bathrooms.

What about Facial Recognition Technology in Digital Out of Home Advertising?

Facial recognition tech is utilized in digital out of home advertising at a fairly rudimentary level, to market campaigns specifically to people based on age and gender, and track these traits and the facial expressions of ad viewers.  For at least five years, shopping malls have relied on the technology to determine levels of customer satisfaction upon entering and leaving the center. In Australia there are over 1,600 billboards installed into 41 Westfield centes across Australia and New Zealand.

It's worth stressing however, that commercial advertising digital signage currently uses facial detection technology not facial recognition. Facial recognition technology uses a customer's face to directly identify them. Facial detection technology identifies a customer's gender, age, and or facial expression.  Of course, there is nothing to stop them from extending to facial recognition - the ability to get that up close and personal to consumers must be irresistible.

What is the Problem With Facial Recognition Technology?

Part of the challenge is what happens to your photo once it is captured.  This month, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology revealed new documents showing that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has requested face recognition searches of driver’s license databases. They stress that these aren't incidences aren't limited to migrants as they’re scanning and searching everyone’s faces — not just those of undocumented residents.

Another issue is the accuracy of the technology. Research reveals that facial recognition has greater difficulty differentiating between men and women the darker their skin tone. A woman with dark skin is much more likely to be mistaken for a man. Researchers further believe that its use could place transgendered people at undue risk of police attention and even death due to mistaken identity.

Somewhat amusingly, the ACLU last year conducted a test of Amazon's facial recognition tool, Rekognition, the software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.


This is even a bigger issue in public spaces as facial recognition technology raises fundamental issues about privacy and public surveillance as there is no way to opt in or out. There are a few tech technological solutions such as glasses that comprehend your face as a light source rather than a face, juggalo make up, or concealing clothing. But of course all of these are likely to attract the attention of those around you.

Legislation is a Toothless Tiger Without Checks and Balances of the Technology

In regard to facial detection technology, it's fair to say people have a genuine concern on two parts: the technology as part of a greater grouping of personal data far greater than the sum of its parts, or the technology as a precursor to full facial recognition technology.

The reality is that even with the ban in San Francisco, California tech companies are heavily invested in the tech. Efforts by activists to instigate an Amazon shareholder vote to ban the sale of facial recognition to government agencies failed spectacularly May, with the tech's opponents raising only 2.4% of the vote, according to company filings.

As citizens and participants in an ever evolving industry we have the responsibility to keep tabs on when (not if) and who in our industry decides to use facial surveillance technology for their own gains.

Any Data Collected in Public Spaces Should Consider:

  • Are citizens aware of the data collection?
  • How do citizens opt out?
  • Who owns the data?
  • Where and how is it stored?
  • How long is it stored for?
  • Who is it shared with?
  • Can it be sold?
  • What happens to the data if a company goes bust?
  • Do people make money from their data?
  • How can you get your face removed from a database?

The technology is fast evolving and the advertising industry must stay on top of the issues or face condemnation from an increasingly critical public.

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