Japanese retailers walk fine privacy line to gather customer data with facial recognition

The Parco_ya shopping center in Tokyo’s Ueno district is using 90 cameras and facial recognition technology from AI startup Abeja Inc. to estimate the ages of visitors and track their movements, The Asahi Shimbun reports. Data collected by the system is shared with the mall’s 60 stores to help them improve their marketing and product arrangement.

The system also collects visitor gender information, and has found that 80 percent of visitors to the shopping center are women, and most are between about 30 and 60 years old. An official for Parco-ya’s operator said that information on the system is available to consumers through its website, and that facial images are deleted promptly after analysis.

Japanese law allows businesses to collect and analyze facial images, as long as they dispose of them.

Abeja says that it stores the images for up to six months, and the company has recently introduced a service for tracking repeat customers. It has a total of 100 companies using its service at 520 stores.

The Personal Information Protection Commission, which is an independent administrative committee set up by the government in response to concerns about privacy violations related to Japan’s national ID system, regulates the use of customer data by businesses. Commission councillor Kuniko Ogawa noted at a symposium this summer at the University of Tokyo that images which can be used to identify individuals are considered personal information, but anonymized data such as an age or gender estimations are not. Ogawa urged symposium attendees to prioritize “giving careful consideration to the privacy issue and winning users’ trust.”

The limitations are not robust enough to protect against becoming a surveillance society, however, lawyer Masahiro Kobayashi warns.

“As improved camera image analyzing and other technologies lead to more frequent use of data for marketing and other purposes, it is essential to develop proper rules,” he says. “People must be notified when they are being shot with cameras.”

FaceFirst CEO Peter Trepp recently told BuzzFeed that almost half of the top retailers in the U.S. have at least looked into the use of facial recognition technology in their stores.

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