Japanese shops digitally label customers by faces

If staff calls a person a 'complainer,' other stores are warned

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TOKYO — Automatically recorded images of shoppers’ faces taken by security cameras have been shared among 115 Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores as an antishoplifting measure, without customers’ knowledge, The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper has learned.

Although the images are used mainly to prevent shoplifting, experts and industry bodies say it is necessary to make clear rules because providing people’s facial data to a third party could constitute an invasion of privacy.

The facial data in question were shared by 115 stores of 50 separate operators that have installed a shoplifting prevention system that a Nagoya-based software development company began marketing in October.

At these shops, security cameras film all customers’ faces. If a person shoplifts or makes an “unreasonable” complaint at one store, security camera footage of the person is processed into facial data with the recognition system and classified as “shoplifter” or “complainer.”

They are then sent to the software firm’s server to be recorded. The facial images themselves cannot be browsed from other stores.

Once a face is registered on the digital blacklist, however, a warning is issued to the staff of other stores — in a way only the staff can notice — when the face recognition system installed at these stores detects the blacklisted person visiting their stores.

Computerized facial recognition systems are known to identify a specific person with an accuracy rate of at least 99.9% and are used to identify terrorists at such places as airports.

Lawyer Yoichiro Itakura, a personal information protection expert, said the data could be used in a way disadvantageous to customers as “stores can arbitrarily register specific shoppers as suspicious people, and they may then suffer unjust treatment at stores they have never visited before.”

Itakura also pointed out, “Even when someone is erroneously registered (as a suspicious person), he or she won’t be given an opportunity to complain about the mistake.”

An official of the Nagoya software development firm said: “The system has no problems. We just responded to the needs of the stores, which is their need to prevent shoplifting.”