Konami Gaming, a slot machine maker, wants to weaveinto its one-armed bandits. During a visit to its Las Vegas headquarters to hear more about its plans, I quickly discovered what the world would be like if facial recognition is everywhere.
"Hello, Alfred," said a measured, robotic voice, startling me. It came from a kiosk called "Biometrics Welcome Console" positioned right next to the door of the conference room where my meeting was held. The kiosk knew who I was because Konami had set up a profile for me, using a public photo from my CNET bio without telling me. The facial recognition tagged me before I'd even said hello to the Konami team members in the room.
I looked at the screen showing the photo the kiosk took of me when I walked in. The camera had caught just my eyes and nose. Still, the facial recognition software calculated it detected me with 60.5% accuracy.
"Any picture you use online can be used to identify you already," Sina Miri, Konami's vice president of innovation and strategic research and design, told me. Konami had also set up profiles of my colleagues at the visit, again without telling them.
Throughout the interview, Konami's facial recognition cameras followed us. They captured our images so many times that the kiosk kept greeting us long after the meeting started. Eventually, a Konami staffer resorted to covering her face with paper to keep the machine quiet while we stood out of its view.
The exchange, which Konami saw as a positive demonstration of its capabilities but which I viewed as an invasion of privacy, illustrates the fine line that facial recognition needs to walk. Technology companies can't wait to incorporate the feature, which can be as benign as Face ID on your iPhone, into more gadgets and systems. But consumer advocates worry it'll have a chilling effect on our private lives.
Meanwhile, facial recognition's spread marches on. Over the last decade, anything you can think of -- toothbrushes, televisions, cars, refrigerators and even beds -- has been connected to the internet. Within the next 10 years, facial recognition companies hope to do the same with their technology. CES 2020, where many of these companies showed their wares, was a glimpse into what the future of surveillance could look like. The annual tech conference was a prime spot to help make the biometric service mainstream.
Just as connecting a television to the internet was a fairly new concept in 2011, a world filled with facial recognition is essentially uncharted territory now. That might change fast. By 2019, analysts found that you couldn't buy a new TV without an internet connection. Facial recognition companies want that sort of acceptance for their technology.
That means inserting FR, as the technology is called in shorthand, into every part of your life. You'll experience it at the shopping mall, at school and in your own home.
"Once it's used in other industries, it'll be in places everywhere," said Tom Soukup, Konami's senior vice president and chief systems products officer. "There's going to be widespread customer acceptance within the next two, three years."
But facial recognition is used by police departments and government agencies for investigations, often without legal guidelines that protect citizens when it's used. Lawmakers have raised concerns about, for example, the effect on free speech if police could use facial recognition to pinpoint and track protesters in a crowd.
"This is a tech that threatens to supercharge our cameras and turn them into surveillance devices like never before," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.
When everything became connected online in the last decade, the convenience came with some strings attached. For televisions, it meant that companies could start tracking people's viewing habits and selling that data to advertisers.
With facial recognition, it could happen on a broader scale. You can't change your face the way you can change an advertising ID associated with your device.
At CES, facial recognition appeared to be on the verge of wedging itself into spots it had never been before. The trade show itself implemented facial recognition for badge pickups for the first time, while LG showed off a door that could scan your face to unlock. A storage box for marijuana using facial recognition won a CES innovation award.
On Wednesday, Konami Gaming showed off its plans for implementing facial recognition in slot machines, explaining that gamblers could use their faces for loyalty and rewards programs from a casino.
Konami's Miri envisions a future in which facial recognition could enable pervasive, real-world online tracking for targeted advertising via Google and Facebook.
"Once we face ID you, what we do is build a profile," Miri said. "If we know your favorite drink is rum and coke, we can put an advertisement of a specific brand of rum where you are, for example."
Throughout the interview, Soukup referred to our faces as "QR codes," reducing one of our most intimate, personal features to a machine-scannable jumble.
Soukup said Konami doesn't have privacy officers who work on facial recognition development at its headquarters. Instead, the company has compliance officers, whose job is to make sure its technology meets the minimum standards of privacy laws like the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which includes provisions covering biometric information.
In the US, almost no regulations on facial recognition exist, outside of Illinois's biometrics law. Everything that Konami did -- taking my image without my permission to build a profile and then constantly tracking me in its office even though I never opted in -- is completely legal.
"We're living in a wild west when it comes to privacy protections," the ACLU's Stanley said. "Most deployments of facial recognition aren't empowering individuals, but they're empowering the companies that lie behind those devices."
Konami's executives said that facial recognition would speed up the process for gamblers looking to get loyalty rewards points. Under the current system, it takes about a minute and a half. With the biometric, Miri says, it would take 30 seconds.
You'd be exchanging a potential lifetime of facial tracking to save a minute.
PopID, a facial recognition company based in California, is behind facial recognition for businesses like Deli Time and Stoner's Pizza Joint. It's also got its technology on the campuses of schools like Stanford University and University of Southern California.
The company provided a similar comparison, saying it takes about 90 seconds to order food through facial recognition, compared to 3 minutes without it.
Yale Goldberg, PopID's vice president of strategy and business development, says the company's facial recognition is in more than 100 locations that ring up more than 1,500 transactions per week.
He says facial recognition will spread, pointing out the success it's had at PopID's parent company, Cali Burger.
"We have significantly more loyal top customers than we did before we had these kiosks. It's because they know they can get this great experience every time," Goldberg said. "They don't need to add their onions and light ketchup and everything else. We know that for them. We make their lives easier."
Facial recognition companies believe this technology will be everywhere in the next five years, arguing that the convenience will win over the public.
But with unease building over technology companies' invasion of privacy, more people are becoming aware of the strings attached to that convenience, the ACLU's Stanley said.
"We've seen a growing backlash against facial recognition in the country and growing understanding of the technology's consequences," Stanley said. "We need to be very, very wary about exchanging convenience for a world that we don't recognize anymore."
Before leaving Konami's office, I asked the company's staff to delete the profile it had made of me, along with any other biometric data that its cameras collected during my visit.
The staff deleted my profile but said they'd need to contact Konami's biometric supplier to get rid of the data they collected on me. I wasn't able to stay to see that happen.
After the story published, Konami apologized for building a facial recognition profile of us without our permission, and said that the company should have provided notice.
"We did not mean to offend the team or make light of important values," a Konami spokeswoman said. "We will ensure that the data associated with Wednesday's visit is purged from our internal system and that of our biometric technology partner."
Originally published Jan. 10.
Updated Jan. 13: Adds response from Konami about deleting biometric data.