It is no secret that, in civilised society, "Big Brother" is very likely to be watching us whenever we venture into public places and, thanks to facial recognition software utilised by retail outlets, "Big Brother" is not only watching, but also knows our names and many other personal details.

Facial recognition software is already incorporated into many security systems in order to track shop-lifters, but a new use has now been found for its revelations: tracking big spenders.

Companies now plan to extend the services offered by recognition software companies such as California-based FaceFirst, who already notify retailers by text or email when known shop-lifters enter their premises, in order to track down and target those customers who are most likely to part with big bucks in their store.

The technology will soon enable businesses to identify "big spenders" and provide staff with pertinent details, including their name, clothing size, favorite brands and purchase history, so that they can personalise their approach to the customer.

"Just load existing photos of your known shoplifters, members of organized retail crime syndicates, persons of interest and your best customers into FaceFirst," the company website explains. "Instantly, when a person in your FaceFirst database steps into one of your stores, you are sent an email, text or SMS alert that includes their picture and all biographical information of the known individual so you can take immediate and appropriate action."

The potential for the new technology has also been recognised by other establishments who like to take extra special care of their best customers, including hotels. The development of the concept is being discussed in a series of meetings between experts and consumers representatives in Washington . The issue of customer privacy is an important topic on the agenda, and Joseph Rosenkrantz, the chief executive of FaceFirst, envisages that stores using the software to seek permission from their customers first.

“That would require opt-in consent,” he said.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration intends to develop a ‘voluntary, enforceable code of conduct that specifies how the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights applies to facial recognition technology in the commercial context’ at the meetings.

‘Commercial facial recognition technology has the potential to provide important benefits and to support a new wave of technological innovation,’ John Verdi, the agency’s director of privacy initiatives told the New York Times, ‘but it also poses consumer privacy challenges.’

There are serious concerns over the use of such methods: the covert nature of the surveillance means that the target has no knowledge or control over its use, and facial recognition software measures unique biological patterns in each individual, similar to DNA sequencing, so this type of biometric data is considered to be extremely personal and sensitive. In the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who exposed sensitive documents revealing that the government had collated huge amounts of personal data from phone records and mobile phones, there are fears that the technology could be misused.

“This is you as an individual being monitored over time and your movements and habits being recorded,” says Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. “That is a very scary technological reality.”

Mr. Rosenkrantz argues that its current shoplifter-recognition service is no less intrusive than typical in-store video security surveillance systems, which capture images of every customer and stores them for 30 days, destroying faceprints of all consumers except shoplifters.

“We purposely do not store information on people not being looked for,” he says.

Yet Joseph Atick, a pioneer in the area of facial recognition, believes that in modern society where it can be linked with the proliferation of other technologies such as cellphones, facial recognition is potentially a far more powerful tool. He suggest that it could ultimately result in continuous and total exposure, and ensuring that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to remain anonymous when venturing out in public.

“I don’t think there has ever been a capability that converged in this way to give people power over you,” Mr. Atick says.

Is the use of this type of technology ethical, or a violation of our personal privacy? More worryingly, where will it end? Will it soon be impossible to venture out of doors undetected? Will footage of our movements be made available to the highest bidder, making it easy for stalkers or cuckolded spouses to track the movements of their quarry?

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