Company that owns Polo Park using facial recognition in malls without consent

Cadillac Fairview, the company that owns Polo Park Shopping Centre in Winnipeg, is using facial recognition software in malls across Canada to profile shoppers without customers consent.

Cadillac Fairview says images aren't being stored, but former privacy watchdog says technology is invasive

Cadillac Fairview, the company that runs CF Polo Park, confirms it uses facial recognition technology to track shoppers' ages and genders without consent. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Cadillac Fairview, the company that owns CF Polo Park in Winnipeg, is using facial recognition software in malls across Canada to profile shoppers without notification or consent.

The company confirmed the use of this technology in malls nationwide after a shopper came across an open browser in a Calgary mall's digital directory sign.

The company would not confirm whether digital directories at CF Polo Park have the software, but said the technology is used to gauge mall traffic, and more recently, the age and gender of shoppers. 

"The cameras in our digital directories are there to provide traffic analysis to help us understand usage patterns and continuously create a better shopper experience," a spokesperson said in an email. "These cameras do not record or store any photo or video content."

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former privacy commissioner and expert-in-residence on privacy and data analytics at Ryerson University, said she is appalled.

'Extremely privacy invasive'

"I cannot believe they're doing this without any consent from the customers," she said. "It is extremely privacy-invasive, because your facial image and biometrics are among the most sensitive types of personal information that exists."

Because the software is not storing images, the company said it does not require consent from customers. Cavoukian said she disputes that and said facial tracking should not be happening without permission.

"I don't know how it's being used in these malls but most facial recognition software can be adapted to collect additional data points," she said.

"I'm not going to take their word for it that they're not keeping it and not doing anything. They're certainly capturing the facial image and they're making some use of it and I have no idea where it might go."

Use of facial recognition on the rise

Glenn Tinley, president of Mexia One, a Winnipeg-based biometrics company which provides facial recognition systems to the airport, retail and event industries internationally, said the use of this kind of technology is on the rise.

"It's definitely being used more and more for multiple different purposes," he said, adding your face can now be used as a ticket to an event.

"At the same I would also suggest it's in its infancy … in terms of how well systems work, how accurate they are, and how information is captured, used, saved and deleted."

Although he can't speak to the way Cadillac Fairview is using the technology, Tinley said the way the software generally works is that a camera sees a face and captures data points to make an estimate of different data such as a gender, age-range and even sentiment.

"You know happy, sad, angry those type of things." he said, adding all of that is then loaded into a file that is used to then extract that data to be reported on later.

Transparency recommended

All of the systems his company creates are designed specifically to identify people, with their consent, he said.

He understands why malls and retailers would want to collect information to monitor the changing demographics of shoppers because it allows them to select stores and events to cater to those shoppers. However, even if a company is not required to provide consent because the images are not being stored, Tinley said most privacy organizations would expect transparency.

"It doesn't have to be a big banner but signage to say this is happening," he said. "Otherwise consumers think it's being done behind their back or they think that there is some ulterior motive and most cases it isn't."

Meanwhile, Cavoukian said customers who are concerned about the mall's potential use of this technology should speak up.

"If people speak out against this, they'll stop doing it," she said.