It probably comes as no surprise that international retailer Walmart sells security cameras for the home or office. But did you know the corporation founded by Sam Walton is now installing spy cameras in all their U.S. stores that use facial recognition technology to identify their shoppers – without telling anyone?
This writer watched in amazed horror as the self-checkout lanes at the local Walmart were remodeled to feature overhead and forward-facing spy cameras. As customers check out, their images are displayed on a small monitor next to the register – like it or not.
Smile! You’re on candid camera! Except no attempt is being made to hide this insidious piece of spyware.
This story goes back to 2012 when Walmart applied to patent “a system that would use facial recognition technology at the checkout to help store personnel determine if customers are unhappy and if so, make contact to address any shopping-related problems.”
The 2012 patent application said the goal of using facial recognition was to enhance both short- and long-term customer service:
“The biometric data of a customer may be correlated to transaction data of the customer in order to detect changes of the purchase habits of the customer due to dissatisfaction. Changes in purchase habits, such as loss of a customer, may be used in combination with the biometric data to establish thresholds of biometric data used to generate customer service actions.”
Additional benefits Walmart acknowledged in 2012 were to reduce staffing cost (buh-bye, jobs) and increase customer retention.
At that time, Mark Ryski, CEO of HeadCount Corporation expressed his misgivings about retail stores using facial recognition on their clientele:
“While I do believe there is great potential to use and apply biometric data (especially for security purposes), I am very concerned about how some retailers might use this data under the guise of ‘improving customer service.'”
Jasmine Glasheen writes for and is a generational marketer at Retail Minded. She addressed her concerns directly to Sam Walton’s successors:
“I’d caution Walmart to consider how the implementation of new technology will impact their relationship with their customers.”
Some critics of Walmart’s electronic surveillance mindset said the same results could be achieved by training their associates. Lesley Everett, the CEO of Walking TALL Training and Consulting, said:
“I can see its merits if staff reductions are to be made in a significant way and for shoplifting prevention. However, if staff are still in stores and trained well, they have the best opportunity to address the challenge of customer loyalty and satisfaction.”
Finally, Dr. Stephen Needel, managing partner at Advanced Simulations, pointed out that using cameras to gauge customer satisfaction is overkill:
“Why don’t cashiers ask if the customer found everything they were looking for — not having found it being the major cause of unhappiness? You don’t need facial recognition for that. And give the cashier an action option if the customer says no.”
Fast forward to 2019. Walmart is busy installing facial recognition cameras in all check-out lanes at all store locations. Their reason for this now is to improve store losses from shoplifting. This has nothing to do with customer service, but it does impact product prices. One way stores make up for financial losses is by raising prices.
Retail consultant Mark Heckman regards facial recognition tactics as “additional security safeguard against fraud, shoplifting and even VIP shopper identification.”
Heckman is of the opinion that:
“Given the increasing number of credit card fraud cases, stolen identities and other personal information breaches, I believe most consumers understand that it is to their benefit to make sure they are who they say they are when a payment card is being used.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disagrees:
“[M]ost customers do not think that they are being subject to a perpetual lineup, scrutinized by face recognition technology to see if they resemble anyone that a company security service has decided to put on a watch list. They do not expect that their faces are being captured, retained, connected to their real-world identity (for example when they use a credit card at checkout), and combined with information about their income, education, demographics, and other data. They do not expect that their every footstep, hand motion, and gaze will be analyzed by computers and filed away to give insight into their shopping habits, patterns, and preferences, and shared among different companies, data brokers, and advertisers. They do not expect that they are subject to the risk of being misidentified as someone in a database of suspected criminals, fugitives, terrorists, or whatever other blacklists stores may be using or begin using in the future. They don’t expect that all these intimate details about their behavior will become accessible to government agencies through legal demands or voluntary sharing.”
Indeed, if any such activities were going on at Walmart, “most customers would want to know about it.”
We couldn’t agree more. But what does Walmart have to say about customer privacy and ethical behavior?
Walmart’s stated mission is “providing excellent customer service and delivering low prices.”
According to Walmart, stellar shopping experience requires consumer confidence:
“Part of providing superior customer service includes making sure that we’re building a relationship of trust with customers.”
Walmart has a Human Rights Statement and claims to respect human right. Every employee who works there is “guided” by their values:
- Service to the customer
- Respect for the individual
- Strive for excellence
- Act with integrity
- How and why we collect your personal information;
- How your personal information is used and protected;
- When and with whom we share your personal information; and
- What choices you can make about how we collect, use, and share your personal information.
Walmart has three Global Ethics:
- Serves as a guide and resource for ethical decision making
- Provides a confidential and anonymous reporting system
- Leads a continuing ethics education and communication system
Why, then, are there no current articles describing Walmart’s new push for digital data surveillance on its valued customers? Why are there no signs at the checkout stands to advise the public that their recorded images are being used to identify thieves and other criminals who threaten Walmart’s bottom line?
Has Walmart read its corporate policies? One has to wonder, given their ongoing push to spy on and identify digitally every purchaser who hands over their hard-earned cash – or credit card.