Yesterday, we had written about how the popular food and beverage outlet Chaayos is using facial recognition method at its stores (you can read that here), including the one we visited, as a part of the process for placing an order for a cup of tea or whatever it is that you may want to eat. That itself raised quite a few concerns, including those about consent, the privacy of the data being collected and what the collected data was being used for. We had reached out to the company to understand their perspective on the matter. Sunshine Teahouse Pvt Ltd has shared a statement with News18 which says that the facial data collection is currently in the beta test phase, and will only be rolled out at all stores after thorough testing.
The company says that they “strive to leverage technology” to make the customer experience at stores even better. “Towards this endeavour, we have recently launched a facial recognition feature at our Point of Sale as an option to eliminate the hassles of OTPs and reduce the overall customer purchase time. The feature is currently in the beta phase at select cafes and will be officially rolled out post thorough testing,” they say. This corresponds with what the in-store staff had explained. But as for reducing what they call the customer purchase time, what would be simpler than walking up to the counter, placing your order, paying by cash or card and stepping aside? Whether it is facial recognition or waiting for an OTP, the very activity of collecting your data (obviously there is the excuse of loyalty programs etc.) every time you place an order is what adds to the waiting time for everyone in the queue.
Chaayos also insists that the facial recognition data that they collect, along with your name and phone number, are secure. And that it is only being used to log-in a customer at the time of placing the order. “At Chaayos, we are extremely conscious about our customer’s data security and privacy and are committed to protecting it. Data from the facial recognition feature is encrypted and cannot be accessed by any party, including Chaayos itself except for the purpose of logging-in our customers,” the statement shared with News18 says. They also insist that this data is not being shared with any third-party and is also not being used for any other purpose.
We had also noted in our piece how there is no explicit communication about whether a customer can opt out of sharing their facial data, anywhere in the store or on the tablet that is used as a part of the order placement process. “Moreover, customers have the right to not opt in for facial recognition feature and instead use their phone number to enjoy benefits of our loyalty program. Even providing phone number is not mandatory to enjoy a cup of chai or other products at Chaayos,” says the company. They go on to add, “We also provide our customers with a permanent “Opt-out” feature on our website, where-in they can choose to permanently delete their pictures captured by our systems at any point of time . Our café staff are also well trained to help customers register or opt-out of the feature.” From our experience, there wasn’t any communication for any opt-out, also because there was no communication for an opt-in, in the first place!
What Chaayos doesn’t talk about is why the face data collection process is so secretive. Why is there no explicit communication or messaging in the store or on the tablet that informs a customer that a facial recognition system is at work here? Secondly, why is there no process of taking customer’s consent before capturing their face recognition data? We were not asked for any consent, for instance. It was just assumed we would be happy to share our data. As a customer, you also do not tap on a button on the screen to click your photo before sharing. It all happens on its own, in a blink-and-you-miss sort of speed. Why? If you happen to be in a conversation over the phone or with a friend, you’ll probably miss this completely. You’ll never realise that Chaayos has taken your facial data, without your consent, and that is now linked with your phone number and name.
We had to explicitly tell the in-store staff that we will not place any order with our facial data being a part of that process, and only then were we reluctantly told that the older OTP process would work instead. If someone doesn’t know, and they will not know because there are no banners informing the customers, they will never in their wildest dreams imagine facial recognition is active and then explicitly opt-out.
We would simply want to ask—if speeding up the overall customer purchase time is an important criteria, why not go back to the basics? Why all this data collection at the time of billing? Phone numbers, OTPs, face data, would you like to sign up for the loyalty program and what not. Why not ask for the passport details, how many properties a customer owns, what car they drive and how many kilos of gold they own too? Look, we have been to stores around the globe—multi-brand outlets, premium brand stores, grocery stores, you name it, and never have we had any extra communication with the person at the billing counter except them telling us the exact amount we need to pay and asking whether we need a carry bag or not. No data collection, no need to share phone numbers and what size shirt you wear.
Corporates and retail chains complicated things for themselves, in the rush to accumulate as much data as possible. Billing process now takes literally hours, in most stores. It is frustrating, while they go about tapping on a touchscreen trying to punch in as much data as possible to your "account". Profiling much? And now they want to create new rules and new potential privacy nightmares to be seen solving the mess they created in the first place. It is a rather sad state of affairs. To those who care about their data and its privacy, particularly your biometric data, we simply say this—there are many other places that sell you tea without asking for you to hand over your valuables.
No wonder our parents cannot fathom why it takes so long at billing counters in stores these days. They have seen simpler times.