A major retailer’s AI-powered surveillance program apparently targeted poor people and minorities.

What’s new: Rite-Aid, a U.S.-based pharmacy chain, installed face recognition systems in many of its New York and Los Angeles stores. Most of the locations were in low-income neighborhoods with large Black, Latino, or Asian populations, according to an analysis by Reuters. Rite-Aid terminated the program shortly before the report was published.

Who’s minding the store: The company had installed the systems in 200 locations nationwide, according to internal documents. Reporters spotted them in 33 of the 75 Rite-Aid stores they visited in the two cities.

  • Security guards used a smartphone app to photograph customers caught misbehaving or acting suspiciously. The app sent the photos to a face recognition model.
  • An in-store camera texted an alert to security whenever it recognized one of those people entering a Rite-Aid store.
  • The retailer used the technology much more often in low-income, non-white neighborhoods. It didn’t install the system in some nearby stores that had similar shoplifting rates but were located in predominantly white neighborhoods.
  • Some of the systems were sold by DeepCam, whose parent company is based in China. Civil liberties advocates worry that the company may send data on U.S. citizens overseas.

Behind the news: Several other large retailers in the U.S. have tested face recognition in recent years. Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards have been hit with class action lawsuits over the practice.

Why it matters: Face recognition has become a staple of security and law enforcement in the U.S. and elsewhere with very little public debate over limits on its use. The technology poses obvious threats to privacy. Moreover, research shows that it often makes mistakes, especially when it tries to identify people of color.

We’re thinking: Face recognition could be a powerful defense against shoplifting, but much work remains to be done to audit the accuracy, reliability, and fairness of commercial systems and formulate regulations that govern their use.

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