A shopper’s discovery of facial recognition software in a Calgary mall owned by the parent company of CF Polo Park has sparked calls for transparency.

The unmarked cameras on the digital directories at Calgary’s Chinook Centre gained exposure when a photograph of a directory with an open browser window was posted to Reddit.

Representatives from Cadillac Fairview, the parent company of both malls, released the following statement:

“The cameras in our digital directories are there to provide traffic analysis to help us understand usage patterns and continuously create a better shopper experience. These cameras do not record or store any photo or video content

The directory unit contains software that counts people using the directory via the camera. In June, we began testing software that tries to predict approximate age and gender to further understand the usage of our directories, and with this still no video or photo feed is recorded or stored.

We are not sharing further details about the program including locations, as we view this as proprietary.”

With no way of knowing whether such technology is being used in Winnipeg, shoppers like Shawn Moskalewski expressed concern over the practice. 

“It definitely could be an issue,” said Moskalewski. 

“It’s everywhere around us, you just have to be aware of it.” 

Another shopper also expressed frustration over the lack of transparency, saying:

“Maybe they should tell people ahead of time what this is all about.” 

Glenn Tinley is the founder and president of Mexia One, a company that’s developed facial recognition software being used around the world, including at airports and for major events. 

Tinley stressed that such software should always include signage notifying consumers. 

“I think companies are making a mistake if you’re not being transparent about it. Just let people know,” said Tinley. 

Tinley also explained that the kind of data the mall might be collecting wouldn’t necessarily look like photos. 

“A camera would see the face and register certain data points, an underlining algorithm would then export to a set of characters that would say ‘this is a male, this is a female,’” said Tinley. 

“I’m assuming that the actual facial image is then deleted from the system, and it ends up effectively being a line in a spreadsheet with numbers.” 

Privacy lawyer and Pitblado partner Andrew Buck explained that privacy laws were engaged when a business collects, discloses, or uses personal information for commercial purposes. 

“In this case the reason it may not be personal information is because if we’re not taking and storing pictures, we’re getting aggregated data that can’t actually be used to identify the person,” said Buck. 

“Then it’s not personal information and privacy laws won’t apply.” 

Buck said the practice still raised questions about transparency on the part of the company, and whether shoppers should be made aware of the technology. 

"So that people can make an informed choice about what they do and don’t want to do and have their information used for.” 

With files from CTV’s Ryan White