Iowa State Professor Weighs Benefit vs. Risk of Facial Recognition Technology

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Bob Elbert Brian Mennecke is concerned about the loss of privacy as more companies develop sophisticated online profiles, what he calls “mavatars,” of customers.

Many states are using the technology to scan driver’s licenses to prevent identity fraud.

It led to the arrest of a suspected arsonist in New York. And while facial recognition technology could not identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, police used the software in their search.

These recent headlines illustrate the benefits this technology provides for law enforcement agencies in an investigation. Not surprisingly, many businesses also see an advantage in using facial recognition, not for crime-fighting, but to reach customers. However, Brian Mennecke, an associate professor of information systems at Iowa State University, questions whether customers are ready for it.

“It’s beneficial for a company to have more information about you because it allows them to customize their service and products as well as their advertising. And it’s certainly beneficial to the customer because they don’t have to waste time essentially relaying that information,” Mennecke said. “But the other side of this story is really the privacy aspect.”

Retailers have collected data on customer preferences and demographics for years, but biometrics takes it to a new level. Facial recognition software is already used in social media applications, like Facebook’s “tag suggestions.” The technology scans uploaded images and then matches the biometrics to names and faces “tagged” in other photos in its database.

It may seem like a cool feature, except the users cannot control or modify this profile, Mennecke said. In fact, they give Facebook permission to create and maintain a profile database as part of the “terms of service” they agree to when signing up for Facebook.

Business applications

Intel is also using facial recognition software in its digital signage displays, Mennecke explained in a study published online in the journal Business Horizons. The displays use touch screens to interact with the customer and feature everything from video and graphics to Internet sites and broadcast clips.

The technology also identifies general characteristics like gender, age and race and tracks how customers use the display and for how long. Mennecke says the Intel system promises anonymity as it builds a digital customer profile that includes physical characteristics. It’s what Mennecke calls a “marketing avatar” or “mavatar.”

Businesses want that personalized information to provide better customer service and to make the most of advertising dollars by directly targeting consumers with specific, detailed information.

“If you watch people as they walk around public places, like the mall, people mostly ignore signs and billboards. This is because we are bombarded with so many irrelevant ads and displays. The more relevant the ad, the more likely that someone will look at it. So if ads can be targeted, retailers can do a better job of grabbing your attention,” Mennecke said.

See Also

A price for privacy

Facial recognition technology promises benefits for consumers, if they are willing to sacrifice some privacy. Mennecke says retailers could use the software in digital kiosks or smart phone applications to identify and collect consumer information. However, he believes it will still be a few years before that happens because people are hesitant to opt into a service that uses a biometric scan of the face.

Read more . . .


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