Rite Aid Used Facial Recognition Software in Their US Stores

facade of rite aid pharmacy

Pharmacy chain Rite Aid used facial recognition software in hundreds of their stores across the US. Reuters published a report on Tuesday which shows that the software was used in at least 200 stores. Stores in lower income areas turned out to be more likely to use facial recognition software. Non-white neighborhoods were also more likely to have the software in use. The software was used over the past eight years.

Reuters’ Investigation

Reuters was researching the use of facial recognition software in Rite Aid stores. Researchers looked at the way in which the software was used, since the company didn’t want to disclose where the technology was used. Reuters has been in contact with Rite Aid about their use of facial recognition software since February of this year. Back then, the company confirmed and defended the use of the software. Rite Aid claimed that the software was used in order to combat theft and to protect staff and customers from violence.

But last week, when Reuters sent its findings to Rite Aid, the company stated that it was no longer using facial recognition software in its stores. It claimed that all cameras were turned off. “This decision was in part based on a larger industry conversation,” the company told Reuters in a statement, adding that “other large technology companies seem to be scaling back or rethinking their efforts around facial recognition given increasing uncertainty around the technology’s utility.”

In What Way Where the Cameras Used?

So this is how the software was used. The cameras were positioned at either the entrance of a store or in the cosmetics aisle. Whenever a customer walked in, their face was saved in a database. This data would be deleted after 10 days, unless the customer had shown suspicious behavior. Every time someone entered the store, their face was compared to the ‘suspicious’ faces in the database. If a match was found, security agents could ask the customer to leave.

In Most Cases, Customers were Unaware of the Software

Rite Aid has previously stated that people could have been aware of the use of facial recognition software. The company said that the were signs up in the stores. A written policy had also been posted on the Rite Aid website. But the researches didn’t see any signs in over a third of the stores that they visited that did have facial recognition cameras. And most customers probably didn’t read the online policy before they entered a store. So most customers would have been unaware of the fact that their face was going to be saved in a database as soon as they walked into a Rite Aid store.

Poor and Less White Areas were Targeted

Reuters visited 75 Rite Aid stores in New York and Los Angeles. They found facial recognition software in 33 of those stores. Analysis of the data showed that stores in lower income areas and non-white neighborhoods were far more likely to have the software in use.

Rite Aid explained that the placement of the cameras was data driven. Whether or not the software was used was based on stores’ theft histories and local crime data. The company said that the use of the software had nothing to do with race. You could say that the results of Reuters’ investigation shows otherwise.

Facial Recognition Software Proven to be Unreliable

Activists and civil rights organizations are worried about the use of facial recognition software, because there is usually no oversight over the way in which the software is used. They are also worried about the fact that the use of the software will lead to more discrimination. And these concerns have only gotten worse over the last few years. Research which shows that not all facial recognition software is effective, especially concerning darker-skinned individuals, confirms these concerns.

Large tech companies, such as IBM, have reported that they will no longer invest in the development of facial recognition technology because of these concerns. And Amazon and Microsoft are no longer allowing police departments to use their facial recognition software until regulations for the use of the software are put in place.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.