READERS PLEASE NOTE: This article was published
Biometric payment tech in Canadian retail stores raises privacy concerns
A Canadian company says it’s considering offering something to busy consumers who don’t want to take the time to pull out a credit card to pay for their purchases.
The Foody Mart grocery chain, located across Ontario and B.C., confirmed to the National Post it will consider using facial recognition technology as a convenient way for its customers to purchase items.
The company disclosed to Yahoo Finance that it would purchase this software from a Toronto-based company called SnapPay. SnapPay works with Alipay and WeChat Pay, two Chinese payment companies that use their own facial recognition payment systems.
This biometric technology allows customers to simply stand in front of a point-of-sale (POS) machine with a camera. The customers’ banking information is then linked to the picture that shows up on the screen.
“By enabling consumers to pay with their ‘face’ North American merchants, particularly those with self-service kiosks, are providing an unprecedented level of convenience and speed in the checkout process to a lucrative customer segment that increasingly demands it,” said CEO and founder of SnapPay, Spencer Xu in a news release issued last October. Is the convenience worth the risk?
But it won’t come without concerns. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said in a 2018-2019 report that around 90 per cent of Canadians are worried about people using their online information to steal their identity.
Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert, recalls the number of people who would contact her office during her time as Privacy Commissioner of Ontario complaining that neither police nor credit card companies would believe their identity theft claims.
That could be worse if the identity being stolen is, in effect, someone’s facial features.
“Imagine trying to clear your name,” said Cavoukian, speculating on an instance where someone was able to use another person’s facial features on a scanning machine.
Facial recognition technology has become especially controversial since it’s been shown to be easily manipulated. For example, someone could hold a 3D mask of someone else’s face towards the camera, which would then recognize that image as a person.
Not only can this technology be easily deceived, but the inaccuracy rates also increase if you are not a white male and are a person of colour. Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab found error rates in facial recognition AI services from IBM, Microsoft and Face++ of up to 35 per cent with images of darker-skinned women.
Even with all the perks of convenience, one Ryerson student says the error rates make him leery of using the technology in a store.
“What if it fails and it doesn’t recognize you, as you?” said Johnny Libenzon, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student and former chair of RU Hacks. “You’re trying to pay for something and apparently you’re not yourself to the camera.”
Cavoukian says she is also skeptical of the accuracy around this form of biometric scanning.
“Just in terms of accuracy or lack thereof, it is abysmal and shouldn’t be used. It’s inaccurate and I don’t think it’s ready for prime time,” she said.
SnapPay’s error rates are unclear, as the technology is not out on the market yet.
What’s also unclear is what will happen to the images used in the scanning process after the identification function is finished.
Consumers would also have concerns if they don’t know if their information is being seen by third parties.
“People are waking up to all the surveillance out there, where their information is being grabbed without their consent or notice,” said Cavoukian. “They understand that this can come back to haunt them.”