CF facial recognition software is a direct violation of consumer rights

As most students and residents of Ottawa have probably wondered at some point or another, what does the CF stand for in CF Rideau Center? It stands for Cadillac Fairview, a property management company which owns 37 million square feet of leasable space at 67 properties in Canada, and is valued at over 29 billion dollars.

Now, being a company that owns approximately 60 per cent of retail property in Canada, you may think that CF has a certain responsibility to ensure the rights of consumers are not violated on their property, right?

Lately, they have been shown to do the exact opposite. According to a CBC report from July of this year, the Chinook Centre in Calgary which is owned by CF was caught testing a facial recognition program inside its mall directories to track their usage. The company says that they do not keep records of the faces that are scanned—yet, a lot of crucial questions are still left unanswered.

If the software is being ‘tested’, then how would it gather results of the test? How is the system improved? Is it a self-improving algorithm such as the recommended videos section on YouTube or Netflix? Or maybe like the systems used for tailored advertisements on social media platforms?

By refusing to answer these questions, however, CF is refusing consumers the ability to give consent. Although these systems may not be recording exactly what peoples faces look like, they could be collecting data such as similarities and differences in bone structure and thereby creating a pattern to be able to tell the difference between a man and a woman. Would this not be considered a sort of metadata that is being collected without consent of the individual?

At the Chinook Centre, consumers were not asked for consent. There was no advertisement that the system was being used, and the use was only discovered by accident when a shopper saw something that CF was trying to hide. The surreptitious nature of the testing hints that CF either knows what they are doing is morally wrong, or they are concerned about consumer backlash. If we are not forewarned and if we are unable to even give consent, then we are powerless to protect our privacy.

CF argues that since they are not making any direct recordings, they are not in the wrong. Where is the line drawn and who gets to draw it? The collection of metadata by the U.S. government has already faced public outrage, so why doesn’t CF get the same treatment?

Seeing as this is a company that owns most of the commercial space in Canada, this is not something consumers can just decide to walk away from. There is an obligation to ensure consumer rights are not being violated, especially when a corporation has a monopoly, like CF does.