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NYC's Proposed Facial Recognition Ban Triggers Outrage Among Grocers Amid Rising Shoplifting Cases

This move, if implemented, would make it extremely difficult for supermarkets and other businesses to continue using the technology to combat theft effectively.
Cover Image Source: Pexels / Clem Onojeghuo
Cover Image Source: Pexels / Clem Onojeghuo

Facial recognition technology has become a heated topic of debate in New York City as the City Council considers a proposal to ban the software. While some businesses, particularly grocers in the Big Apple, have found success in using the technology to fight shoplifting, concerns have been raised about its potential for racial profiling and infringement on privacy rights, according to New York Post. While the debate rages on, the future of facial recognition in the city hangs in the balance.

The proposed bill, in response to the controversial use of facial recognition technology by Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan, aims to mandate that private businesses and residential buildings obtain written consent from customers before capturing their biometric information. This move, if implemented, would make it extremely difficult for supermarkets and other businesses to continue using the technology.

Council member Shahana Hanif, one of the bill's co-sponsors, expressed concerns about the high error rates of facial recognition for people with darker skin tones and argued against the idea of facial scans becoming a prerequisite for simple activities like buying eggs.

Image Source: GettyImages/Ethan Miller
(James Dolan) - Image Source: GettyImages/Ethan Miller

The bill has gained momentum and support, with the number of legislators signed on increasing from seven to 15 since the initial committee hearing. Those in favor of the ban argue that facial recognition technology should only be used by law enforcement to avoid potential racial profiling. On the other hand, the security industry maintains that the technology has significantly improved over the years and that concerns about racial bias are based on outdated information.

Jake Parker, director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, emphasized that modern software is highly accurate and employs artificial intelligence to enhance its performance.

Independent grocers, frustrated by a surge in shoplifting incidents since the pandemic, formed a coalition demanding action from legislators and law enforcement. With shoplifting accounting for a significant portion of their losses, many businesses, including Fairway and Westside Market, invested in facial recognition technology. By building databases of known shoplifters and integrating surveillance footage with facial recognition software, these grocers have experienced some success in deterring theft and reducing confrontations.

However, opponents argue that the accuracy of the technology varies depending on demographic factors, with higher error rates for women of color.

Image Source: Pixabay | Tumisu
Image Source: Pixabay | Tumisu

Shop owners who have implemented facial recognition systems have reported positive outcomes. For example, Miguel Garcia, co-owner of multiple supermarkets, has seen a decrease in confrontations and incidents since employing the technology. With staff threatened verbally and even physically, Garcia believes that removing the technology would put his employees at risk and hurt the business.

Avi Kaner, co-owner of Morton Williams, highlighted the financial burden of hiring off-duty police officers to guard store exits and expressed concern that the loss of profit would be unsustainable.

Critics of facial recognition software, such as Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, argue that grocery stores need to provide data to support their claims of accuracy. Concerns persist regarding the potential misidentification of innocent individuals and the lack of accountability in the use of this technology. Transparency and accountability should be key considerations in any legislation related to facial recognition.

Image Source: Pexels | Anna Shvets
Image Source: Pexels | Anna Shvets

Striking a balance between security and protecting civil liberties is crucial, and any decision on facial recognition must be based on comprehensive data, transparency, and public discourse. As the City Council weighs the potential benefits and risks, the fate of facial recognition technology in New York City remains uncertain.