The Retail Giant’s Technological Leap
Walmart, a name synonymous with retail, has always been a pioneer in adopting new technologies to streamline its operations. One of the most groundbreaking has been the use of AI in face recognition for loss prevention.
This technology has been a game-changer not just for Walmart but for the retail industry at large.
But the story doesn’t end with loss prevention; Walmart has leveraged this technology to collect a wealth of metadata from our shopping experiences around the world.
Let’s delve deeper into the intricacies of how Walmart has been a trailblazer in this domain.
The Genesis: AI for Loss Prevention
As early as 2019, Walmart confirmed the use of image recognition cameras at its checkouts to detect theft[^1^].
Known as Missed Scan Detection, this technology identifies when items move past the scanner without being scanned, thereby alerting employees in real-time[^5^].
The AI system is so advanced that it can analyze footage from multiple surveillance cameras and make real-time decisions[^2^].
This has been a significant step in reducing shoplifting and other types of theft, saving the company millions of dollars.
Beyond Loss Prevention: Data Collection
Walmart’s ambitions with AI technology go far beyond mere loss prevention. The company has been collecting, storing, and using biometric data, which has raised several eyebrows concerning privacy[^3^].
Walmart has reportedly used Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology more than 300 times to identify individuals in their stores[^4^].
This is not just about identifying potential shoplifters; it’s about collecting a treasure trove of data. Since around 2014, Walmart has been gathering metadata from our shopping experiences, not just in the U.S. but globally.
The scale and depth of this data collection are staggering, and one can only speculate about its current capabilities.
Here’s a table that outlines the types of metadata that Walmart’s AI facial recognition system could potentially collect, based on the information available:
|Facial Features||Unique facial landmarks used for identification||Eye distance, nose shape|
|Timestamp||The exact time the data was collected||2021-09-13 12:34:56|
|Location||The specific Walmart store where the data was collected||Walmart, New York|
|Transaction Data||Information about the customer’s purchase||Item IDs, total amount|
|Customer ID||A unique identifier for the customer, often linked to a Walmart account||Customer#12345|
|Emotional State||AI algorithms can sometimes determine the emotional state based on facial expressions||Happy, Neutral, Angry|
|Duration of Stay||The length of time the customer spent in the store||45 minutes|
|Path Through Store||The route taken by the customer through the store, often used for optimizing store layouts||Aisle 5 → Aisle 9 → Checkout|
|Interaction Points||Points where the customer interacted with staff or self-service machines||Customer service, Self-checkout|
|Payment Method||The type of payment method used by the customer||Credit card, Cash|
|Associated Accounts||Any linked accounts or loyalty programs||Walmart Rewards|
|Device Information||Information about the customer’s smartphone or other devices, if connected to Walmart’s Wi-Fi network||iPhone 12, iOS 14.7|
The Controversies and Legal Battles
The use of such advanced technology have not been without its share of controversies. Walmart is currently facing a class-action lawsuit for allegedly collecting, storing, and using biometric data without obtaining informed written consent from individuals[^3^].
This has sparked a debate about the ethical implications of using such technology, especially when it comes to the privacy of millions of shoppers.
The lawsuit brings into question whether companies like Walmart should be allowed to collect such extensive data without explicit consent.
A Glimpse into the Future
Walmart’s pioneering efforts in utilizing AI for loss prevention and data collection have set the stage for what’s possible in retail technology.
However, it also opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical and legal questions that society will need to address. As consumers, it’s more critical than ever to be aware of how our data is being used and the extent to which technology is shaping our shopping experiences.
As AI technology continues to evolve, so will its applications, and it’s crucial for us to stay informed and vigilant.
[^1^]: BBC News – Walmart uses AI cameras to spot thieves
[^2^]: WIRED – Walmart Employees Are Out to Show Its Anti-Theft AI Doesn’t Work
[^3^]: Business Insider – Walmart Is Facing a Class Action Over Its Alleged Use of Surveillance
[^4^]: The Verge – Retail stores are packed with unchecked facial recognition
[^5^]: The Verge – Walmart is using AI-powered cameras to prevent theft at checkout lanes