Tristan Jackson-Stankunas went into his local Rite Aid in Los Angeles, California one day and was shocked when he was told to get out by a store manager.
"And I'm, like, well, why do you want me to go? Or what do you... what about what did I do, you know? And he's like, 'well, you know, you can't be in here. You're a shoplifter.' I'm, like, a shoplifter?”
Unbeknownst tohim, he was in a store where Rite Aid had installed facial recognition technology. He had been matched to a photo of someone who allegedly had stolen from the drug store chain in 2013. That photo was sent to the store manager’s phone.
"I asked him to show me the photo that he had in his phone of my face, you know, because he said that someone sent him a picture of me, and I request the photo, he said 'no.' I asked the other cashier to explain to him that I was who I said I was. I offered to show my driver's license and other photos in my phone of myself just so he'd know that that photo was not correct. And then at that point, he said, well, you know, he kind of flashed his phone at me and said, 'this is it'. The guy looked nothing like me."
Except for one thing- both are Black.
Over an eight-year period, Rite Aid quietly rolled-out facial recognition systems to 200 stores across the United States. And a Reuters analysis found that in the heart of two of America's biggest cities: New York and Los Angeles, in places where people of color made up the largest groups, stores were more than three times as likely to have the technology.
But not in every neighborhood.
This Rite Aid in the whiter, wealthier Upper West Side New York City neighborhood didn’t have the facial recognition technology when Reuters went to check on July 9th, but this other store in the Black-majority neighborhood of Harlem did.
Rite Aid said in a statement that each location was picked based on crime data and other factors unrelated to race and overall - the technology helped it reduce violence and organized crime activity in its stores.
Reuters also discovered something else:
Shoppers’ images for more than a year were being fed into a facial recognition system from DeepCam, a company with links to China and its authoritarian government. DeepCam’s co-founder is a Chinese native, with U.S. citizenship, whose name is Jingfeng Liu. He also runs a company in China with financial backing from a Communist Party government fund.
And for some U.S. politicians – that’s too close for comfort.
Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican acting chair of the Senate intelligence committee told Reuters in a statement: “The Chinese Communist Party’s buildup of its Orwellian surveillance state is alarming, and China’s efforts to export its surveillance state to collect data in America would be an unacceptable, serious threat.”
Reuters found no evidence that Rite Aid data were sent to China. And when asked, Liu said he is no longer involved with the U.S. DeepCam business. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said concerns about China using that data to monitor Americans were based on “unfounded smears and rumors.”
But even if there is no China connection today, Rite Aid’s surveillance program still had a flaw – incorrect identification.
(JACKSON-STANKUNAS SPEAKING:) "The day when that happened in the store, we had neighbors in the store. You know, I had people that I knew, that I lived in the same building with in the store looking at me as if I were a thief. You know, I have a 13 year old child. My son's friends were in the store, and my son's friend's parents were in the store. So, it makes me look like I'm a thief. I mean, it feels horrible."
Jackson-Stankunas, who was not filmed by the DeepCam system, says Rite Aid never apologized.
As for Rite Aid, it said its practices ensured it didn’t bother customers, but after presented with all of the findings from the Reuters investigation, the retailer said it stopped using facial recognition technology in any of its stores.