This week, Reuters reported that the American drugstore chain Rite Aid has deployed facial recognition systems in 200 stores nationwide over the past eight years. And the story gets very, very hairy.
Since Rite Aid refused to disclose where it used such technology, Reuters reporters took it upon themselves to visit 75 locations in the central Los Angeles metropolitan area and Manhattan. Of these, 33 had “easily recognizable” facial recognition cameras. According to Reuters, storefronts in low-income areas were almost three times as likely to have facial recognition cameras present than those in wealthier neighborhoods. Rite Aid locations in areas predominately populated by people of color were more than three times as likely to have facial recognition cameras present.
In phone and email correspondences with Reuters, Rite Aid insisted its use of the cameras had nothing to do with race. Instead, the company says it hoped the cameras would discourage theft and violence. But facial recognition regularly falls short when it comes to identifying people of color. (For more on this, listen to an interview with Deb Raji, a technology fellow with the AI Now Institute and an expert on bias in facial recognition algorithms, from Slate’s podcast What Next TBD.)
Rite Aid first used a facial recognition system from FaceFirst and piloted the system in 2012. By 2013, the drugstore chain had rolled out FaceFirst cameras in 65 stores, 52 of which were situated in predominately Black or Latino neighborhoods. Three sources, including two former Rite Aid managers, told Reuters that facial recognition technology was concentrated in the “tougher,” “toughest,” or “worst” communities.
Rite Aid did away with the FaceFirst system in 2018, opting instead for a product from DeepCam LLC. These cameras photographed and videotaped every Rite Aid customer upon entering the store, generating individual profiles that staffers could review if they noticed potentially criminal activity. Rite Aid agents said they lost access to the profiles after 10 days unless the customers exhibited suspicious behavior that landed them on a watchlist. If those customers were to reenter a Rite Aid in the future, security agents would receive an alert on their smartphones.
In a February statement, Rite Aid claimed customers had been notified of the facial recognition software through storefront “signage” and a policy published on its website this year. But Reuters reportedly found no such signage in more than a third of the stores with facial recognition cameras it visited.
Earlier this year, Rite Aid’s vice president of asset protection, Cathy Langley, insisted that facial recognition technology resulted in less criminal activity in the drugstores. Last week, however, new management at Rite Aid moved to terminate the facial recognition program.
Rite Aid isn’t the first company to draw concerns over surveillance and facial recognition software. In 2019, Home Depot and Lowe’s faced lawsuits for secretly using facial recognition to track the movements of their customers. According to Reuters’ sources, Walmart has also piloted facial recognition in some of its stores.