A ShopRite grocery store in Vernon made news a few weeks back when customers noticed a sign posted near the entrance: “Attention Customers: Biometric identifier information collected at this location.”
I first learned about it on social media where one Twitter user found the situation very alarming: “Welcome to China, oops I mean Vernon, Connecticut!” she wrote. “Big Brother is here and wants total control!”
What followed, predictably, was a thread of similarly indignant commenters blaming ShopRite’s use of anti-shoplifting surveillance on everything from “gov/woke businesses” to “police and politicians who do nothing.”
I’m not sure where these people have been hiding, but such surveillance is not new. I explained this reality on the comment thread with a link to a 2021 article outlining both the variety of stores that have been using facial recognition technologies for years and the more than 35 organizations calling for U.S. retailers to stop using it.
“For instance, Rite-Aid quietly installed facial recognition cameras in hundreds of U.S. stores, mostly in non-white and lower-income neighborhoods, Reuters reported in July 2020,” according to the tech news website The Verge. “The cameras scanned shoppers’ faces to try and find people in the store who were previously suspected of criminal activity and then sent alerts to security.”
It’s not just stores. A more recent New York Times article explains how Madison Square Garden screens all patrons in order to identify “lawyers on a ban list because their firms are involved in litigation against the arena’s parent company.” Whether it’s retailers or entertainment venues, the headline of this particular news story sums up the issue: “Which Stores Are Scanning Your Face? No One Knows.”
Enter Connecticut’s Data Privacy Act, a new law that “gives Connecticut residents certain rights over their personal data and establishes responsibilities and privacy protection standards for data controllers that process personal data.” Indeed, after receiving media inquiries about its Vernon store, ShopRite released this statement: “In a commitment to transparency and in compliance with the new Connecticut Data Privacy Act, we posted a sign about the use of this technology.”
Connecticut citizens, therefore, should be grateful – not upset – upon seeing signs about “biometric identifiers” as they enter stores, right? Well, to a point. Even if we are irrevocably surrounded by surveillance technology in our lives today – including traffic cameras that track our vehicles, GPS systems that track our second-to-second location, and retail loyalty cards that track our buying habits – the question remains: Just what specific data is being collected and how, specifically, is it being used?
Currently, the United States features a “hodgepodge of privacy protections,” including Connecticut’s new law, which is one of just five such state laws across the country. And while these laws do give consumers the right to safeguard their personal data, the mechanisms used to do so are often confusing – if consumers even know about them in the first place.
In the end, it’s a question of “agency.” As we fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of artificial intelligence (AI) that does more and more for us – curating our music choices, filtering our news stories, writing our essays and emails – we should also be asking what these technologies are doing to us.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy highlighted this very point in a New York Times essay about the increasingly negative influence that AI-fueled, social-media platforms have on kids: “So many of them have ceded their online autonomy so fully to their phones that they even balk at the idea of searching the internet – for them, the only acceptable online environment is one customized by big tech algorithms, which feed them customized content.”
So yes, we should be wary as technology encroaches ever more creepily on our personal lives. And yes, we should be concerned when we learn our local supermarket is identifying our faces and tracking our movements in the store. But we should also recognize that this has been happening for some time, and rather than blaming “politicians” or “woke businesses,” we should do something about it – starting with learning about the laws that those politicians wrote in order to keep those woke businesses in check.