Who Owns Your Face?

Governments are scrutinizing facial recognition in a big way. Will that stop businesses from developing it?

It’s the latest tech in the crosshairs: software that can recognize someone’s face and tie it to their location, their criminal history, even their preference of beverages. But now, as governments worldwide get on the bandwagon early to curb the tech’s use, business leaders are left wondering how much to still develop—or use—it.

The fact that governments want to regulate a technology isn’t new, but getting in front of its widespread use is unusual. Indeed, governments haven’t been this far ahead of a tech since the US government licensed radio stations in 1912, years before the introduction of broadcasting to the general public. Some cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have already enacted bans of using facial recognition in public places. Several states are looking at facial recognition–related legislation, while the European Union is weighing a temporary ban in public places.

Facial-recognition software has been quietly building a niche for years. One firm scrapes face data from across the internet and then sells that data to law enforcement agencies. But there are plenty of non-security applications, too. “Cars, appliances, and phones can use facial-recognition software so a person has fewer buttons to push or things to do,” says Chris Cantarella, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Technology Market practice. A lot of business models are built around making products and services easier to use.

Marketers also are eyeing people’s faces, too. Retailers, for instance, could use facial-recognition software to collect information on a customer’s age or race and the areas of a store in which they shop. Those findings could give retailers in edge in tailoring customer-specific promotions and services.

But some people, including some politicians, worry that facial-recognition software could go too far. Facial recognition can be used to identify people without their knowledge or consent. Collecting and using people’s data, some say, isn’t that far off from creating a mass surveillance state.

Still, according to Cantarella, developers  will likely forge ahead. “Capitalism will press the edges,” he says. “It will go over the edge and people will get upset.” Indeed, experts say developers cannot necessarily worry about what regulations are eventually put in place. Regardless of whatever government regulations over facial recognition come down the pipe, they add, it won’t answer a fundamental question: Does a person have control over their own data and traits? Because of facial recognition, people may worry about how governments and corporations use and store fingerprints, cellphone signals, or myriad other data points tied to a unique person.

“Facial recognition itself is a tech-based capability, it’s not a business application. It’s how we deploy facial recognition that can be troubling,” says Mark Polansky, a senior partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology Officers Executive Search practice. And as long as people are willing to hand over their data, companies will come up with ways to capture it, and firms will use that data to improve their businesses.

In the long run, even if the technology grows, corporate leaders all over will need to decide if facial recognition software is right for them—in their own offices to track staffs, or as marketers buying or sell facial data. In an age of purpose-driven firms,  employees might balk at the technology’s use or avoid firms that use it “Leaders should aim to be ethical, of course, but also to ensure they consider public safety, public security, and public perception of security,” Cantarella says.