Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Horse without a face? Tesco, the Biometrics Institute, and Mister Broad

I need to start this with the disclosure that I work in the biometrics industry, and in this role I have been involved with products that offer facial recognition.

But not facial detection:

Tesco's introduction of facial detection (not recognition) systems at its petrol forecourts (The Telegraph, 5 November 2013) is just another example of the public getting exposed to new technology without fully understanding what is happening. But who is asking the consumers what they really want?

"While Tesco is saying that currently images, pictures or personal data of customers are not being recorded or captured, there is a very small step from detection and categorisation to recognition", explains Isabelle Moeller, Chief Executive of the Biometrics Institute. "The main concern is that personal data could be collected without prior consent of the individual. The key privacy principle that must be observed is the principle of informed customer consent."

Ms. Moeller is raising some valid questions, but I found myself all caught up in the use of the phrase "facial detection." When I first read it, I wondered if the software was detecting whether a face was present or not - a situation previously explored by society expert William Broad, whom you may know by another name.

The reason that Moeller used the phrase "facial detection" is because the software is not used to specifically identify a person, according to the referenced Telegraph article:

The 'OptimEyes' system will be rolled out into 450 Tesco petrol forecourts, which serve millions of customers a week.

It works by using inbuilt cameras in a TV-style screen above the till that identify whether a customer is male or female, estimate their age and judge how long they look at the ad.

I am not familiar with this particular product, but the task before it seems difficult. I speak from experience - when a phone solicitor calls me and hears my voice, half the time the solicitor refers to me as "ma'am." (Note to cold-call solicitors: when you refer to someone by the wrong sex, your chances of making the sale are reduced.) I need to investigate and see what level of accuracy this software provides in identifying sex, but it's clearly not 100% - just throw Boy George and Chaz Bono before the cameras and see what happens.

And to top it off, this is being implemented at Tesco - a company that has previously been unable to distinguish a cow from a horse.

At some future point I'll pay an exteneded visit to Amscreen's website to find out more about the technology, and we certainly have to consider the issues that the Biometrics Institute raised.

But for now, let's see what Mr. Broad had to say about age detection.

(Time for another playlist?)
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