Two articles from The Yomiuri Shimbun Online (November 29, 2012):
Face-recognition cameras pose privacy problem / High-tech 'peepers' operating at dozens of Tokyo locations silently glean age and gender of passersby
Twenty-nine cameras with face-recognition functions have been snapping photos of unwitting passersby at commercial facilities and high-rise condominiums in the Tokyo metropolitan area without notifying the public, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The small cameras, which are mounted on advertisement displays, automatically take pictures of potential customers and determine their age and sex.
Companies that set the cameras up say the technology poses no problem because individuals remain anonymous, but legal experts say rules are needed to clarify use of the technology.
The face-recognition function identifies the sex and age of individuals who enter a camera's line of sight. Computers connected to the cameras automatically perform the identification.
The technology is used for such purposes as recording the arrival of departure of company employees and identifying personal computer users.
According to NEC Corp., which began developing such cameras in the 1980s, they had an initial accurate rate of 20 percent, but today the rate is about 99.7 percent.
One such camera is in operation in Lalaport Toyosu, a large commercial complex in Koto Ward, Tokyo. The unassuming "eye" is mounted on a two-meter-high display showing information about stores in the facility.
Though the camera is barely noticeable from its external appearance, it quietly snapped pictures of customers, its data being fed into software that determines what demographics are looking at what types of ads.
According to the Mitsui Fudosan group, which manages LaLaport facilities, 10 such cameras were introduced to the shopping complex in November 2009, and eight have been in operation in LaLaport Shin Misato in Saitama Prefecture since March 2010.
However, none of these displays notified people that cameras were in operation or stated the purpose.
According to a company that developed the camera-rigged displays, the software determines people's ages and gender based on the images and categorizes them into 10 groups, such as "boy under 10" and "teenage girl."
Though the cameras do not store the images, the valuable marketing data gleaned from them is sent to operators of LaLaport facilities and advertisers every month.
The cameras at Lalaport Toyosu generate data for 10,000 to 20,000 people a week.
The system development company operates displays with the same type of cameras at 10 computer shops in Tokyo's Akihabara district, as well as a high-rise condominium in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, but said customers and residents are not informed that the cameras are in operation.
Supermarket chain operator Seiyu GK had used six such displays at two of its stores in Kita Ward, Tokyo, and Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, since June last year but stopped using them the following August.
A guideline under the Protection of Personal Information Law stipulates that camera images identifying individuals constitute personal information.
The law stipulates that operators who use such a camera to obtain such information without announcing the purpose, and disobey a correction order from the authorities, could face up to six months in prison or a maximum 300,000 yen fine.
The system development company concerned and Mitsui Fudosan said that as the cameras do not save the pictures themselves, but rather convert them into gender and age data, privacy is not being violated.
A Seiyu official said, "The data does not constitute personal information, so there's no problem."
Hisamichi Okamura, a lawyer who is familiar with the law agreed, saying, "If the data remained anonymous, they could not be considered personal information."
However, he added, "If [the cameras] are used for crime prevention that's one thing. But many people wouldn't agree with their commercial use. Customers and passersby should be clearly told their pictures are being taken."
Masao Horibe, professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and a privacy issues expert, said it isn't the first time privacy issues have been raised over face-recognition technology in the country, but that rules had yet to be compiled because no ministry or agency has taken charge of privacy matters.
"A third-party organization specializing in privacy issues should be established and rules should be made quickly," Horibe said.
Functions useful for marketing, but laws lag behind
Though face-recognition functions have been used widely in various fields, rules on use of the technology have yet to be established.
East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) has been operating automatic vending machines with it since August 2010. Currently there are about 440 such machines, which determine the age and gender of people who stand in front of them and display recommended products.
For example, if a customer is recognized as a man in his 30s, the machine will recommend a nutritious drink. If a customer is recognized as a woman in her 20s, the machine will suggest jasmine tea.
Data generated by the machines are stored and analyzed for deciding product lineups.
Initially, a firm affiliated with JR East that operates the vending machines displayed a notice that the machines were using face-recognition technology. However, the notices were removed in November last year as the company judged the fact to be widely known.
In other countries, there have been moves toward establishing rules on the use of the technology.
In the United States, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission announced late last month a guideline that stipulated if cameras are used to collect age and gender data in shopping complexes and supermarkets, the purpose of collecting the information and details about the type of information should be clearly explained to customers.