These Ex-Cops Have A Mission: Putting Facial Recognition In Stores

Blue Line Technology sells software that scans faces and helps prevent certain people from entering stores and other establishments — to the chagrin of privacy advocates

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 02, 2017 at 12:44 PM ET

While working as a St. Louis police detective several years ago, Marco Silva noticed a pattern: Offenders would often return to the same location assuming they could easily commit the same crime. So in his spare time, Silva developed a tool designed to foil repeat criminals in the act — his own facial recognition security system.

Facial recognition technology works by scanning faces and determining whether those faces are in a selected database (for example, a database of convicted felons). Silva, a former software expert with the United States Army, devised a system that could scan faces in a tenth of a second and registered more facial landmarks than most other commercial applications, making it more accurate. Now, Silva is selling his program to businesses through Blue Line Technology, a company he founded with fellow former cops. They recently made a distribution agreement with a wholesaler and plan on selling hundreds of systems across the country this year.

Silva and his colleagues are part of a growing trend in the security business: Stores, schools, municipal buildings and other establishments are using facial recognition technology to prevent would-be bad guys — or really, anyone they want — from entering their property. This is how the system typically works: A person attempting to enter a building must look at a security camera, which scans their face and doesn’t let them in if they’re wearing a hoodie, mask, or if their face is flagged in a database as a potential threat.

While the technology certainly can make buildings more secure, it’s not without critics. The proliferation of facial recognition, which makes it easier for government agencies and businesses to track you, has raised privacy concerns. And the technology makes it easier for users to racially profile or discriminate against people they just don’t want in their buildings.

Currently, a handful of stores, schools, and businesses in the St. Louis area use the Blue Line system, which is more efficient than others on the market partially because it only pulls from small databases compiled by the user. For instance, employees’ faces grant entry to an office, and sex offenders’ faces ensure a school door remains locked and school staff is alerted. If an abusive parent or a fired employee is not welcome on these locations, their face can be flagged as a potential threat.

But it seems to be retail where Blue Line’s technology has had the most impact. A handful of convenience stores have begun using the systems, mostly at night. Managers can take footage of thieves, and snap images of their face to enter into a database. One of Silva’s partners, former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Force Major Joseph Spiess, said his clients are already seeing the return on investment of the approximately $5,2000 system. “Theft is way down in the stores that we’re in. So they’re saving money on theft and avoiding the calls for police service,” Spiess said. “Think of drug sales … think of panhandling, especially in urban environments.”

Spiess and his partners have observed how their system serves as a deterrent. “We’ve actually sat at a couple convenient stores overnight and watched the reaction,” he said. “One out of a hundred guys will walk up there and look and hear and watch what’s going on and turn around and leave. What we haven’t done, is we haven’t — not that we could anyway because we’re not law enforcement — but it’d be an interesting study to grab that guy and say: Is he wanted? Is he a known thief? Was he going to steal?”

And those are the implications of this type of technology that concern civil liberty advocates. “Any time we have law enforcement officers suggesting that a desire to preserve your privacy is inherently suspicious is worrying,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Because a lot of people have a lot of reasons for wanting to preserve their privacy. Very, very few of them are people who are up to no good.”

Stanley is concerned about businesses or local organizations taking face-recognition watch-listing into their own hands. “It tends to be very unfair, even at the highest levels of the national security state — let alone when some shopkeepers are throwing together their own watch list — because due process protections are often very lacking and inadequate, and lots of innocent people end up on these lists,” he told Vocativ. “So maybe a shop clerk treats you rudely and you are rude in response, and now suddenly they’re throwing you on a list and you’re being hassled every time you go to any store in the city.”

Blue Line recently partnered with wholesaler Anixter International, and aspires to sell hundreds of systems this year. “If this kind of system was to become widespread, it raises serious social questions,” Stanley said. “Like about what kind of checkpoint society we’re going to become, and are we blocking all kinds of people from going to all kinds of places based on relatively remote chances that somebody might be doing harm.”

But clients have been pleased with the program. Chad Leemon, manager of a MotoMart in north St. Louis, admits they had a few hiccups when they first installed their Blue Line system about six months ago. He said patrons got frustrated with system before they worked through the “quirks and bugs,” like the best place to position the cameras.  “When we first rolled it out, there were a few people, younger individuals, they walked up to the door, they read the sign on the door, they shook their head ‘no,’ and then walked away,” Leemon said. “And we always look at it like, you know what, if you’re shaking your head ‘no’ and walking away, there’s probably a reason why you didn’t come in and show your face in the first place. But I don’t know.”

Leemon said they’re starting to see an increase in night customers after the initial dip. Elderly women in particular have told him how much safer they feel in the store now. And several employees, who didn’t want to work night after some night robberies made them fear for their safety, have since started taking on evening shifts. “We hoped that it was going to keep our people and customers safe. We believe it’s done that and we believe it’s curved theft in the store,” he said. “We’re looking forward to Blue Line’s more advanced technology.”

Blue Line’s board is already discussing other areas that they believe could benefit from their software. “We’re getting some exciting ideas,” Spiess said. “The banking industry, the voter fraud issues that face all the areas. You see the opiate abuse that’s killing people. There may be opportunities for facial recognition tying into your medical plan so it could curb the fraud and the abuse of people passing and sharing insurance to try and sell drugs illegally.”

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.