Bookstore Drops Controversial Plan To Spy On Customers

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - British branches of the U.S. bookstore chain Borders have dropped plans to use controversial face recognition technology in an attempt to clamp down on shoplifting, following complaints from privacy advocates.

A personal assistant to UK managing director Philip Downer, Jean Holland, said the company would not be using the hi-tech surveillance software, which compares customers' faces to those of known shoplifters. She declined to answer any further questions.

The company's U.S. public relations office responded to queries by providing a statement saying it had never given approval for its UK branches to go ahead with a trial of the system, although an employee had mistakenly announced that this was the case.

"The company will not participate in a trial of the technology or implement it in the United Kingdom or in any Borders store worldwide," it said. "Borders strongly values the human rights and privacy of our staff and our customers."

Earlier, company spokesperson Jenny Carlen was quoted as saying the plans had been suspended until Borders could settle "the human-rights issues that have been raised."

"And even then we may decide it's in the best interest of our customers not to go ahead with the trial," she added.

Made by the Minnesota-based Visionics Corp., the FaceIt software has been designed to combat crime, especially fraud by criminals using false identities or impersonation, according to a spokesman for Dectel Security, the British distributors.

It aims to do away with the time-consuming task of searching through photographs or video footage to identify criminals.

Instead, the system scans the faces of people passing in front of a camera and searches against a selection of photographs of criminals held in a central database. If there is no match, the image is meant to be discarded..

Visionics earlier this month announced that the State of Minnesota has selected FaceIt as part of a new statewide integrated criminal justice system. It is also being used in Australia and Iceland, the company says.

A 34 percent reduction of crime in two years in a London neighborhood has been attributed to the use of FaceIt, which is linked to 300 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the area.

But the idea of it being used to film customers entering a bookstore - Borders Group Inc. had been planning to use the technology in two London city center branches - upset privacy organizations in Britain.

Human rights group Liberty was among those who protested the move. Critics argued that not only would privacy be breached, there were also no restrictions on what would happen to the data, or whether it would be passed on to third parties.

Similar arguments have been raised in the U.S., where the technology was controversially used during the Super Bowl in Tampa last January, to scan faces of football fans and compare them to criminals' mug shots.

Tampa recently installed FaceIt in a downtown city area, prompting House Republican Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) to ask: "Do we really want a society where one cannot walk down the street without Big Brother tracking our every move?"

What happens to the information is a key concern. "Instead of being erased, the photos taken of crowds could be stored, without citizens even being aware they were being watched," said a report this month in Business Week, referring to face recognition systems.

"What's to stop commercial companies from acquiring these public records and selling them to private detectives or divorce lawyers?" it asked.

Visionics Corp. announced last month it intends to promote federal legislation to prevent any opportunities for misuse of face recognition technology. The software should be used in a way that "upholds all privacy rights," said president and CEO Joseph J. Atick in a statement.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow