Smile for the camera—it knows who you are
Smile for the camera—it knows who you are
20 JULY 2018 7:39 AM

Hotel companies are hoping to someday introduce facial recognition technology as a way to improve the guest check-in process, but that brings with it a whole host of guest privacy concerns.

Good news, everyone, I’m back with another column asking you all to proceed cautiously with technology that borders on creepy and invasion of privacy.

So, Marriott International has partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group to test checking in guests with facial-recognition technology at two hotels in China this summer, according to Reuters. They have their sights on eventual global adoption.

The article also notes that the Chinese government has been using facial recognition for “everything from helping control major live events to ordering fast-food, but also bolstering a growing domestic surveillance system that has raised fears among human rights activists of privacy being invaded.”

Before we get ahead of ourselves, no, I don’t think that Marriott is doing anything nefarious with this new technology and the Chinese government. It’s an exciting new technology that is going to become more widely adopted in countless industries in any number of ways. But, as you saw in the Reuters articles, it brings with it fears of authoritarian uses.

I get that hoteliers want to make guests’ stays at their hotels as seamless as possible. That’s a great goal to have, and facial recognition technology that registers a known guest and automatically checks them in seems like something from a sci-fi story come to life. But think about what happens in stories like that. Someone (and it’s fairly often a government agency) can use that technology to surveille people, monitoring their actions in public and private areas.

Practically speaking, just because a company collects information such as this doesn’t make it private and secure. Consider our recent infographic on hacking in the hotel industry. The 2018 Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report found that 12% of the 53,308 worldwide security incidents involved nation-state or state-affiliated actors.

As a quick aside, there is also concern about the hacking of facial recognition data for identity theft purposes. We’re not talking about usernames and passwords here—this is biometric data. While there’s not a lot you can do as a consumer to undo the damage done by a data breach, you can always change your username and password to try to prevent further breaches. You can’t easily change your face (my apologies to Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, but that can’t really happen). The hotel industry is already a popular target of hackers, so the adoption of facial recognition technology adds one new avenue for thieves to screw up the lives of guests for the rest of their lives.

Along with hospitality, the hotel industry built itself on ensuring guests’ privacy. It even took guest privacy to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, protecting its guest list from Los Angeles police officers who sought the list without a warrant.

Like I said before, I’m not accusing anyone of being in cahoots with any government to spy on guests in hotels. However, I don’t think it’s wise to introduce technology, no matter how cool, into locations where it’s foreseeable that information could be taken/hacked into by third-party hackers for identity theft or by a government as part of a larger government surveillance program.

You might then ask, well, what locations would be considered safe? My answer is, I don’t know, so I probably wouldn’t do it.

Are you a fan of facial recognition technology, or do you think it’s creepy, too? Is there some middle ground I’m not aware of? Let me know. You can leave a comment below or reach out to me at or @HNN_Bryan.

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