In a weird attempt to improve its customer relations, Walmart is developing a device equipped with facial recognition technology that would detect frustrated or unhappy shoppers in their stores. The software would be installed in the various cameras around the Walmart store and scan each customer’s face for any facial movement or expression that would suggest some sort of dissatisfaction. If the system finds an unhappy customer, it would ping employees in the other parts of the store and have them report to the checkout register where they would — hopefully — alleviate the customer’s distress. Official spokespeople of the retail corporation say that the technology will “enable stores to respond more efficiently to customer service issues before shoppers have a chance to complain,” as reported on Business Insider.
The patent filed by Walmart reveals a less lofty reason for the implementation. “With so much competition, a customer will often simply go elsewhere rather than take the time to make a complaint [sic],” it reads. “It is easier to retain existing customers than acquire new ones through advertising. Often, if customer service is inadequate, this fact will not appear in data available to management until many customers have been lost.”
This facial recognition software will also be used to analyze trends and determine customer behavior over time. Once the camera scans the face, the data would be stored in an internal database where repeat purchases would be recorded, along with the customer’s facial expressions. This biometric data would be analyzed and consolidated in one client file. Theoretically, this means that Walmart would be able to establish a pattern on what you buy and how much you spend per visit. Supposedly, this would also improve their management operations and customer relations. (Related: Amazon grocery store wants to be able to track you, must forfeit privacy to use.)
Some critics say that this is an offshoot of Walmart’s earlier attempt at facial recognition technology back in 2015. With this iteration, the software was meant to detect shoplifters and prevent theft. The technology proved to be largely unsuccessful, however, and the group scrapped the project after only a few months.
It remains unclear whether this new biometric surveillance will suffer the same fate.
That said, some people find the move to be a “band-aid” solution to the much deeper problem of unhelpful Walmart staff. Browsing through the comments section of a Daily Mail article releasing the same news, Catherine from Australia wrote, “Perhaps if they put enough, helpful staff…they might have no need for this invasive technology. [A] shopper could have had a bad day at the office, heard her boyfriend or husband was cheating, going through a divorce, or fed up with her mother-in-law. An additional intrusion will not help. Have the proper staff available whom the shopper can approach.”
The concept of facial recognition technology seems to be a trend among large commercial groups. Companies such as Mastercard are moving towards this direction in order to be more efficient and prevent cyber crimes. In a textbook context, this makes absolute sense. As technology expands to improve society, so too do the programs used to destabilize it. Still, technology can also be used as a preventive measure, as what Walmart claims to be doing with this new patent filing. These machinations, however, tend to sway between what is legally acceptable and an invasion of people’s privacy. It can only be hoped that business groups maintain their code of ethics and steer clear of violating our basic rights.
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