Photo/IllutrationA photo for illustration purposes shows what the AI start-up firm Abeja Inc.’s service to estimate the sex and age of customers based on camera images is like. People in the photo are the company’s employees. (Provided by Abeja Inc.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

At the Parco_ya commercial complex in Tokyo’s Ueno district, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that you are being watched.

Indeed, the shopping center, which opened in November last year, about 60 stores--90 percent of shops handling clothing, sundry goods and other such articles there--are equipped with special permanent cameras.

Recorded images are analyzed so the ages and movements of visitors can be figured out. The results of analysis are available at each store’s computers and used to improve the lineup and arrangement of products.

According to Parco Co., operator of Parco_ya, based in the capital’s Shibuya Ward, the collected data showed that 80 percent of customers at the facility were women, while most visitors were in their 30s to 50s.

The findings are both consistent with its predictions.

An official of Parco’s investor and public relations department said the snapped facial data is properly dealt with.

“A notice is posted on our website to tell consumers that data from cameras at shops is analyzed,” said the official. “Facial images are quickly deleted following the analysis.”

Companies are gathering data on customers through special cameras at shops and outlets so the collected information will be analyzed and their sales improved.

An increasing number of businesses are setting up permanent cameras separately from security ones to enable recorded facial images to be analyzed with artificial intelligence (AI).

Filmed faces are regarded as a sort of citizens' personal information. The government allows such data to be used for commercial purposes, if it is deleted after captured people’s age and other properties are analyzed, raising concerns among experts over personal privacy.

ICI Ishii-Sports Inc., which is located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward and runs outdoor gear shops, introduced a customer property analysis system using facial recognition technology at its two outlets in the capital on a trial basis between May and December last year.

Data analysis for one of the two outlets revealed that although most visitors were believed to be in their 40s to 50s, approximately the same number of people in their 20s and 30s also shop there.

Based on the findings, ICI Ishii-Sports has expanded the sales section for women for a U.S. brand that is especially popular among young individuals.

A backpack for climbers bought by 20 percent of customers who stayed at the shop for at least 30 seconds has also been moved from the entrance to the back of the outlet, leading to a growing number of people who walk around the store and stop at sales corners for sleeping bags and tents in front of the backpack section.

Sales have increased more than 10 percent by the end of last year on a year-on-year basis, according to ICI Ishii-Sports officials.

Customer data analysis for Parco_ya and ICI Ishii-Sports were carried out by AI start-up firm Abeja Inc. in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

Abeja in October 2015 released a system to more accurately figure out the number of visitors and estimate the age and sex of customers based on AI deep-learning technology. The system has been adopted at 520 stores of more than 100 companies by the end of July this year, according to Abeja.

It also began a new service in mid-May to convert characteristics of visitors’ faces into numerical data so the movements of repeat customers can be tracked.

Abeja said the facial data is deleted within six months as it pays close attention to the protection of personal information, and that a store has already decided to introduce the repeat customer tracking service.

“Collected personal data about consumers is owned by shop operators that sign contracts with us,” said Yosuke Okada, CEO of Abeja. “We are proceeding with our projects while carefully keeping a balance between privacy and the business according to the personal information protection law.”

PERMISSION FOR DATA GATHERING

The government’s Personal Information Protection Commission, an independent administrative committee established two years ago to monitor violations of the personal information protection law and problems concerning the "My Number” national identification system, allows businesses to utilize camera data for objectives other than security if operators abide by some rules.

Kuniko Ogawa, a then counsellor of the commission, mentioned the committee’s plan to promote both the commercial use of camera images and protection of the confidentiality of citizens in a balanced manner at a July 13 symposium at the University of Tokyo that was themed on the issue.

Shooting images that enable analyzers to identify the snapped individuals is deemed as acquiring personal information, and for what purpose it will be used, has to be notified and disclosed under the personal information protection law.

On the other hand, customer properties, such as being “in her 30s” and “female,” are not regarded as personal information.

Ogawa said images are a type of personal information so unused images should be promptly deleted and explanations provided for consumers.

The policy is in line with an economy ministry guidebook on the utilization of camera images developed to ease people’s concerns over the privacy problem and revised in March this year.

The guidebook states: “Camera images should quickly be deleted after information to be used or utilized is generated or retrieved from them.”

While the guidebook does not cover data from security cameras, the material also shows how to tell customers that operators do not link the data with customers’ membership information or provide it to third parties.

At the symposium, Ogawa stressed the importance of “giving careful consideration to the privacy issue and winning users’ trust.”

CONCERNS OVER EXCESSIVE SURVEILLANCE

Masahiro Kobayashi, a lawyer well-versed in the problems relating to personal information protection and facial recognition, said allowing businesses to collect facial data in an unlimited fashion “could result in a surveillance society.”

“As improved camera image analyzing and other technologies lead to more frequent use of data for marketing and other purposes, it is essential to develop proper rules,” Kobayashi said. “People must be notified when they are being shot with cameras.”

Shuichiro Hoshi, a criminal law professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, who studies legal problems involving camera images, said how to use data from cameras could change in the future.

“The validity of the use of camera images is judged based on the need to record and the impact on privacy, so filming simply to monitor neighbors is thought of as inappropriate,” he said. “Affected by levels of their convenience and transparency, whether imaging systems are accepted by the public could change over time with the advancement of technology.”