Exclusive: Why a U.S. hospital and oil company turned to facial recognition

Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin
·5 min read
FILE PHOTO: An illustration picture shows a projection of text on the face of a woman in Berlin

By Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) - Deployments of facial recognition from Israeli startup AnyVision show how the surveillance software has gained adoption across the United States even as regulatory and ethical debates about it rage.

The technology finds certain faces in photos or videos, with banks representing one sector that has taken interest in systems from AnyVision or its many competitors to improve security and service.

Organizations in other industries are chasing similar goals. The Los Angeles hospital Cedars-Sinai and oil giant BP Plc are among several previously unreported users of AnyVision.

Cedars-Sinai's main hospital uses AnyVision facial recognition to give staff a heads-up about individuals known for violence, drug fraud or using different names at the emergency room, three sources said.

Cedars said it "does not publicly discuss our security programs" and could not confirm the information.

Meanwhile, BP has used facial recognition for at least two years at its Houston campus to help security staff detect people on a watchlist because they trespassed before or issued threats, two sources said.

BP declined to comment.

AnyVision declined to discuss specific clients or deals.

Gaining additional clients may be difficult for AnyVision amid mounting opposition from civil liberties advocates to facial recognition.

Critics say the technology compromises privacy, targets marginalized groups and normalizes intrusive surveillance. Last week, 25 social justice groups including Demand Progress and Greenpeace USA called on governments to ban corporate use of facial recognition, according to their open letter.

AnyVision's Chief Executive Avi Golan, a former SoftBank Vision Fund operating partner who joined the startup in November, sees a bright future. He told Reuters that AnyVision has worked with companies across retail, banking, gaming, sports and energy on uses that should not be banned because they stop crime and boost safety.

"I am a bold advocate for regulation of facial recognition. There's a potential for abuse of this technology both in terms of bias and privacy," he said. But "blanket bans are irresponsible," he said.

The startup has faced challenges in the past year. AnyVision laid off half of its staff, with deep cuts to research and sales, according to people who have worked for the company as well as customers and partners, all speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The slashing followed the onset of COVID-19 shrinking clients' budgets, sources said, and investor Microsoft Corp in March 2020 saying it would divest its stake over ethical concerns.

AnyVision announced raising an additional $43 million last September.

DETECTING THREATS

Macy's Inc installed AnyVision in 2019 to alert security when known shoplifters entered its store in New York's Herald Square, five sources said. The deployment expanded to around 15 more New York stores, three sources said, and if not for the pandemic would have reached an additional 15 stores, including on the West Coast.

Macy's told Reuters it uses facial recognition "in a small subset of stores with high incidences of organized retail theft and repeat offenders."

Menards, a U.S. home improvement chain, has used AnyVision facial recognition to identify known thieves, three sources said. Its system also has alerted staff to the arrival of design center clients and reidentified them on future visits to improve service, a source said.

Menards said that its current face mask policy has rendered "any use of facial recognition technology pointless."

AnyVision in an online video without naming Menards has touted its results, and two sources said the companies struck a deal for 290 stores. In 2019, Menards apprehended 54% more potential threats and recovered over $5 million, according to the video.

The U.S. financial services unit of automaker Mercedes-Benz said it has used AnyVision at its Fort Worth, Texas, offices since 2019 to authenticate about 900 people entering and exiting daily before the pandemic, adding a layer of security on top of building access cards.

Such employee-access applications are a common early use of AnyVision, including at Houston Texans' and Golden State Warriors' facilities, sources said.

The sports teams declined to comment.

ENTERTAINMENT DEALS

Several deals failed to materialize, however. Among organizations that considered AnyVision early last year were Amazon.com Inc's grocery chain Whole Foods to monitor workers at stores, Comcast Corp to enable ticketless experiences at Universal theme parks and baseball's Dodger Stadium for suite access, sources said.

Talks with airports in the Dallas and San Francisco areas referenced in public records also have not led to contracts.

Universal Parks, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the airports all declined to comment on their interest. Whole Foods did not respond.

Government requirements for surveillance at casinos have made the gaming industry a big purchaser of facial recognition. Las Vegas Sands Corp, for instance, is using AnyVision, three sources said. Sands declined to comment.

MGM Resorts International and Cherokee Nation Entertainment also use AnyVision, representatives of the casino operators said last month in an online presentation seen by Reuters.

Ted Whiting of MGM said the software, deployed in 2017 and used at 11 properties including the Aria in Las Vegas, has detected vendors not wearing masks and helped catch patrons accused of violence.

MGM said its "surveillance system is designed to adhere to regulatory requirements and support ongoing efforts to keep guests and employees safe."

Cherokee's Joshua Anderson said in addition to security uses, AnyVision has accelerated coronavirus contact tracing as the Oklahoma company rolls out the technology across 10 properties.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in Delhi, Nathan Allen in Madrid and Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Lisa Shumaker)