Calgary mall defends use of facial-recognition technology after customer discovers they’re being watched

Facial recognition software threatens shoppers privacy
WATCH: If you've looked at a mall directory lately, you may not have realized data around your age and gender was being detected and tracked. As Blake Lough reports non-consenting shoppers may see this as an invasion of privacy.

If you’re lost in Calgary’s Chinook Centre and decide to check in at the shopping mall’s directory to find your way to your favourite shop, be aware that the directory could be getting information from you in return.

Chinook Centre is one of two shopping malls in Calgary using facial recognition software which is hidden in the mall directories, according to Chinook parent company Cadillac Fairview (CF). The second is Market Mall.

News of the software came to light after a shopper saw a window on a directory at the Chinook Centre that showed what appeared to be facial-recognition data, including codes like “gender/inception” and “age/inception.”

READ MORE: Microsoft warns that facial recognition tech brings ‘human rights risks’

The shopper posted a photo of the window on Reddit, which sparked a wide-ranging discussion about the privacy of the mall’s customers along with issues to do with consent.

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The software features a camera that sits behind the digital directories, CF spokesperson Janine Ramparas said in an emailed statement on Thursday. It’s meant to “provide traffic analysis to help us understand usage patterns and continuously create a better shopper experience.”

Ramparas said the cameras don’t record or store any of the information they record, therefore CF doesn’t need consent to gather your data while you’re getting your bearings.

“The directory unit contains software that counts people using the directory via the camera,” she said.

“In June, we began testing software that tries to predict approximate age and gender to further understand the usage of our directories, and with this, still no video or photo feed is recorded or stored.”

Ramparas wouldn’t say how the approximate ages of shoppers are estimated or speak to how exactly the data is used to enhance the shopping experience at the mall.

CF would not confirm whether the facial recognition technology was used in malls outside the city.

READ MORE: Studies show facial recognition software almost works perfectly – if you’re a white male

For Brenda McPhail with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the fact the data isn’t stored isn’t really enough to justify not getting customers’ consent.

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“I think any time a surveillance technology is used on people without telling them about it or giving them an opportunity to consent, it raises questions of privacy rights and civil liberties,” she said in an interview with Global News.

McPhail said it’s also troublesome that the mall seems to have come up with its own definition of what constitutes an invasion of privacy. She also expressed concern over the facial recognition technology being hidden in the directory rather than made public knowledge and therefore open to public analysis

“My understanding of the Alberta Personal Information Protection Act is that consent is not just required for collection of personal information but also for its use.”

CF operates several shopping centres and other developments like condos and office towers across Canada including in Toronto and Montreal.

— With files from Spencer Gallichan-Lowe