News of Amazon's upcoming checkout-free high street stores was hailed by some as a step forward for retail tech. Due to open in the US imminently, with UK locations following shortly, Amazon Go stores (as they are called) will be entirely unmanned by checkout staff, instead relying on a complex technological approach combining lasers, sensors, cameras, tags, apps and scanners to ensure shoppers are billed for everything they carry out of the store.
But Amazon's latest foray into real world retail has not been greeted fondly by all. Activists and campaigners have raised concerns about the privacy implications of Amazon Go's security systems.
Facial recognition security
As reported in The Guardian, the Hyperface project has identified facial recognition software in Amazon Go's security cameras as a possibly illegal, or at least immoral, breach of the Right to Private Life.
Many retailers now use facial recognition software in their cameras to identify potential shoplifters and record customer visits. It is understandable for shopkeepers to protect their wares, but does this latest development in retail security technology go too far?
What are the key forms of retail security technology in use?
The most common and highly visible form of retail security technology that shoppers will encounter is radio-frequency identification (RFID). As explained by OCS Retail Support, RFID tags and scanners work by having individual items give off unique frequencies embedded with information, and having scanners (often in the doorway) pick up this information.
If an item leaves the store without being paid for, an alarm will sound, alerting shop staff to the shoplifter (or accidental shoplifter). Amazon Go have already announced that they will be using a variant of this technology to facilitate their checkout-less payments, with purchases being registered when customers leave the store. Other retailers may follow suit.
Though perhaps a little intrusive by nature, this form of technology has not caused indignation amongst privacy campaigners. Instead, those concerned with freedom from surveillance have highlighted CCTV cameras as a key target.
It has been estimated that there is one CCTV camera for every 11 people in the UK. While professional security companies like ADT and Banham provide monitored CCTV systems, enabling them to "work with local authorities or existing onsite security", many surveillance cameras are often left unwatched. If cameras like these, are already bordering on human rights violation, it is no wonder newer cameras, equipped with facial recognition software, are causing outcry.
Are facial recognition databases immoral?
Facial recognition software in CCTV is not unique to Amazon. It has been in use in the UK for at least a year. In December 2015 the BBC announced that the popular Facewatch scheme was now offering retailers CCTV 'thief recognition'. Facewatch had been in operation for a long time simply sending out CCTV images of known thieves to shopkeepers around the country, with the idea being that shopkeepers would bar individuals they recognised from those images from entering the stores.
With the wider availability of facial recognition software, Facewatch decided to create a database of criminals' faces that would flag up the presence of a known or convicted shoplifter to participating shopkeepers.
At this time, Renata Samson of privacy group Big Brother Watch expressed concerns, likening this to Tom Cruise's 'pre-crime' unit in the movie Minority Report. Shoppers, after all, are innocent until proven guilty. And a previous offence should not bar an individual from shopping for life.
What can we do about it?
Initially, there needs to be a wider debate about whether mass CCTV surveillance with facial recognition is a breach of privacy or even a violation of human rights. The aforementioned group Hyperface is helping raise awareness of this issue through creating clothing that confuses facial recognition cameras in protest of their use.
A switch back to security handled by human guards would allay many of the fears of privacy watchdogs and those who prize their anonymity. Though even if retailers do begin to treat individuals with more rights, our days of public anonymity may be numbered. A new popular app in Russia allows users to find the social media accounts of strangers by simply taking a picture of them.
With this in mind it may not be retail technology that we should worry about, but all of technology in general. Perhaps Amazon Go is simply a part of a bigger movement, paving the way for a time when the Right to Private Life is no longer a right at all.