Facial-recognition experts say the technology could become normalized during the coronavirus crisis as tenants and landlords seek seamless entry methods to reduce exposure to germs.
The technology has been seen by some as a potential threat to privacy, but facial-recognition experts say it can be deployed responsibly in office workplaces.
Companies such as Clearview AI have raised concerns by scouring the internet for images and creating a database of billions of faces that can be used by surveillance systems to identify nearly anyone, without their consent.
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Facial recognition has been quietly used in pharmacies, grocery stores, and by at least one major New York City landlord.
The blowback was fierce, raising uneasy questions whether monitoring and cataloging faces could veer into surveillance and infringe on privacy.
But those involved in the technology say the stigma may soften amid the coronavirus crisis if face reading can play a role in health screening and touchless entry to office buildings as tenants repopulate the workplace.
"I think more and more now, we can use facial recognition in a responsible way to permit access," said Shaun Moore, the CEO and founder of Trueface, a firm that develops face-reading software.
"People assume that it's a form of surveillance, but I think that many fail to acknowledge that if you use a mobile phone or an ATM card, it's the same thing. In fact, there might be more data attached to those."
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Access to large office buildings has remained mostly unchanged for decades: tenants swipe keycards or fobs to pass through turnstiles and open locked doors and guests generally must check in at a security desk.
Already, there was a movement afoot to update those methods.
"We recently initiated a study for commercial buildings larger than 150,000 square feet and we found that only about 5% of commercial buildings are mobile phone app capable," said Aaron Lapsley, the head of Cushman & Wakefield's digital buildings practice. "But that number is increasing fast."
Implementing seamless entry has shifted from a nifty amenity to a health imperative as landlords scramble to create a touchless environment for tenants wary of germs in the workplace.
While smartphone apps can allow workers and visitors to walk into a building and dispatch an elevator without having to pull out a pass or press a button, experts say that facial recognition could be the ultimate outgrowth of the shift to seamlessness.
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"If you want to enter a space using the phone in your pocket, you have to have an app running constantly in the background for it to communicate with the building's security systems," Lapsley said.
Privacy concerns also pervade the practice of tracking smart phones, which have been used by companies to record consumer locations and behavior and sell that data or use it to market products to them thorough curated online advertising.
"We do believe there's a future for facial recognition in buildings," said James Segil, the president and co-founder of Openpath, a company that manufactures access control equipment and systems. "It will take time, but it will get to a point of better adoption."
Segil pointed out that the process of visually screening tenants will become more normalized through the use thermal scanning, which is being employed widely by landlords to check building employees and guests for fever.
"It's not hard to add facial to that at some point," Segil said.
Addressing privacy concerns around facial recognition
Some of the recent concerns around facial recognition stem from controversies regarding Clearview AI, a company that developed algorithms that quietly gathered billions of faces globally from pictures posted on the internet and amassed them into a database. The company produced apps and cameras that utilized that data to identify nearly anyone, without their consent or knowledge.
A March report in Buzzfeed revealed that the large New York City landlord Rudin Management used Clearview AI's system as a screening tool at its properties. The company told Buzzfeed that it had discontinued the use of those systems.
Facial-recognition experts say that the methods they envision using in office buildings are far different. Tenants and landlords would control the databases storing facial data, participation would be voluntary, and individuals who no longer want their biometric information stored would have the right to have it deleted.
"Privacy is a legitimate concern if this is not done the right way," Moore said. "We spend a lot of time with clients educating them on how to do this."
Moore said interest is growing. Trueface, he said, is on track to double its revenues this year. He said the company has so far raised about $5 million in funding from investors and doesn't disclose its earnings.
Openpath, which uses Trueface's software, has raised $63 million in funding in the past four years, its founder, Segil, said. He said its access-control products are used in about 2,000 buildings so far.
"We have a good traction in a short amount of time," Segil said. "We have broader and bigger plans."
Still, many landlords have remained reticent to employ the technology.
"Based on my conversations with tenants, many find the concept of facial recognition to be creepy and they are opposed to the idea," said Craig Deitelzweig, CEO of Marx Realty, which has a portfolio of 4.6 million square feet of commercial space.
Those sentiments could change shortly as tenants begin to filter back to the workplace, Lapsley said, a return that most anticipate will begin after Labor Day.
"It's hard to say when the growth will be," Lapsley said. "We're in August and the decisions to go back to the office space have been delayed and delayed and occupancy levels are 10% or less in most major cities. It's unclear when the money for access entry advances will be deployed, but we think it will be significant for large office buildings and we expect it to happen soon as users return."
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