Facial recognition is here: how will consumers respond?

By Jennifer DeRome | November 9, 2018
Facial recognition is here: how will consumers respond?

It wasn’t so long ago that facial recognition was the stuff of science fiction. Cameras everywhere that recognized the faces of passersby and could serve up advertisements based on individual shopping history, check bank balances, and even report whereabouts to local authorities. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that if we can imagine it, we can probably invent it. So here we are, already living in the future as biometrically-controlled devices and apps are quickly becoming a part of daily life. Convenience and the benefit of artificial intelligence and machine learning’s ability to offer up more personalized choices is a tantalizing carrot for consumers. Yet many are hesitant to jump on the biometric bandwagon—specifically with facial recognition—out of fears of privacy breaches, identity theft, and other nefarious ways someone might use your image. In today’s article, we’ll dive into both sides of the facial recognition coin to better understand the potential benefits to consumers, and address the concerns that may be barriers to use.

Facial recognition as your friend

Ignoring the sci-fi fears for a moment, consider the potential applications for making consumer lives easier. A face—or rather, how technology can map and recognize facial features—is just like a fingerprint; it’s completely unique to an individual and difficult to replicate. It’s also something pretty convenient. You’ll always have it with you, and it can never get lost. Using your face as identification—or even payment, like Apple’s Face ID feature—enables users to streamline everyday tasks with virtually no effort. Facial recognition also gives companies a better ability to recognize customer or employee satisfaction and even their emotional state. This could help companies create more personalized experiences or help quickly identify areas for improvement. For retailers, the applications are seemingly endless. From customizing discounts or offers based on customer preferences to alerting shoppers of items of interest based on their location in the store, facial recognition gives retailers on-demand insight on their shopper's behavior and emotions. Facial recognition also has many uses for law enforcement and travel. For example, criminals can more easily be identified from video surveillance to aid in their apprehension. The Boston Marathon bomber was caught, in part, due to facial recognition technology. Additionally, some U.S. airports are already testing out facial recognition software to replace the use of passports and boarding passes for international travelers. It can also be used to prevent crime. Recently, facial recognition software used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Washington Dulles International Airport were able to catch someone attempting to enter the country using a false passport. The technology is so hot that there’s even a contest to see who can come up with the most accurate facial recognition algorithm. In last year’s competition, a Russian startup beat out tech giants like Google, which says a lot about the current race to recognize our faces. Companies across all industries should expect to hear more and more about facial recognition and should be prepared to gather human insights to test new technologies with customers every step of the way.

Facial recognition as your foe

As with most new technologies, there are many people and organizations that are concerned about the implications of the widespread use of facial recognition. Consumer privacy and fears of misuse of the data collected are among the most concerning. Given that, in today’s social media-driven culture, a person’s face is pretty easy to find with a simple web search. We share our vacation photos on Instagram, pictures of our kids on Facebook, and videos of the long lines and humorous encounters at the DMV on Twitter. And if you have a government-issued photo ID, local, state, and federal officials already have access to that. Add to that the prevalence of IoT devices everywhere that could be gathering someone’s images without their knowledge or consent, and the fact that much of that data isn’t securely stored or protected, the risk of a data breach appears high. On top of privacy concerns, there is also some worry that we may be entering a grey area when it comes to our Fifth Amendment rights, which protect individuals from being compelled to incriminate themselves. If a person is arrested and wants to exercise their Fifth Amendment Rights but law enforcement uses facial recognition to unlock their phone, for example, those rights may be violated. We only need to look to China, where facial recognition technology is already widely used, for a preview of what the future may hold. Already the Chinese government is using facial recognition to scan the faces of ordinary people as they go about their daily business. Those images are then stored in a national database that includes names, ages, and ethnicities. The government even has the ability to track exactly where a person has been recently and who they were with. The list of fears with facial recognition is long and complicated. If you’re considering using this type of technology, make sure that your customers’ concerns are heard and heeded. Customer interviews are a great way to gauge how an individual may feel about a sensitive topic like facial recognition. Any time a customer’s privacy is at stake, it’s important to understand how to address and alleviate those concerns by gathering human insights.

A happy medium?

Facial recognition technology probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, Apple recently announced that all their new iPhones will only have Face ID, leaving consumers with no other option if they choose to upgrade their devices. If this technology is coming whether we like it or not, then it’s crucial that companies pay close attention to the needs and expectations of customers. Some people may love the technology, and with them, there’s an opportunity to delight them with a seamless, delightful experience. Others, however, may have serious concerns and their needs must also be considered. For example, if your company does adopt this technology, consider providing an easy way for customers to opt out if they choose. New technology can be both exciting and a little scary. It’s important to gather continuous human insights to better understand how your customers feel about new technology like facial recognition and align your products and experiences to meet those needs.

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About the author(s)
Jennifer DeRome

Jennifer is a Senior Content Strategist for UserTesting. When she's not dreaming up new ways to connect with audiences, you can find her traveling around the world or enjoying a glass of wine with friends.