Surveillance Tech Is an Open Secret at CES 2020

Companies like Cyberlink and ZeroKey proudly showcased products that could track people and objects

Photo: David Becker / Stringer/Getty Images

CES targets a strange place between consumers and businesses. Vendors may want to advertise a product that customers will see on store shelves, but just as often they’re selling services directly to businesses.

When it comes to user privacy, those two categories require very different marketing approaches.

While consumer-facing tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Facebook came to CES prepared to assuage user fears about the erosion of privacy — even if some did a less than convincing job — this year a number of vendors at the annual electronics trade show couldn’t have been more excited to sell the futuristic surveillance dystopia they’re helping to build.

Take, for example, Cyberlink, a company best known to consumers for making video-editing software like PowerDirector and PowerDVD. But at CES, Cyberlink was showing off a very different product: facial recognition software. The company says its FaceMe product is capable of recognizing faces in a video, identifying a person’s gender and rough age range, and even what emotions they’re expressing.

Hardware and security companies can use Cyberlink’s software in a wide array of products, creating everything from retail kiosks that can track customer happiness, to security systems that authenticate employees as they enter a building. As Steven Lien, Cyberlink’s director of marketing, explained to me, the Taiwanese company’s software is also being used in body cams sold to police in its home country.

“It’s for a policeman to identify a dangerous person or suspicious person when they are doing patrol,” Lien said. “We do have one customer who is doing the body cams in Taiwan.” In addition, the company sells license plate identification software that can cross-reference license plates with criminal databases to identify stolen vehicles, or vehicles associated with people who have a known criminal record.

When asked whether Cyberlink would consider selling this software to manufacturers that make devices for police in the United States, Lien said “I would say it depends on the business demand.” He went on to explain that the company’s license plate tracking software is designed for use on Taiwanese license plates, but U.S. license plates are more complicated and might require more research to develop. “It depends on if we get an interesting enough customer to do these things,” Lien said.

Meanwhile, other companies are facing scrutiny for similar facial-recognition technology. Amazon, for instance, has faced heavy criticism for licensing its own facial recognition software to police departments, and some cities have voted to ban the technology from government use altogether. Even Amazon’s own shareholders voted on an ultimately rejected resolution to ban the sale of the tech to governments, citing concerns about false positives, and especially disproportionate rates of inaccuracy when used on people of color. To combat the negative perception of its software, Amazon puts out “educational” material to assuage consumer fears. Smaller vendors like Cyberlink don’t need to spend as much time and resources to allay those concerns since most consumers might not even know they’re developing the software. Instead, Cyberlink openly advertises the surveillance capabilities of its product.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. The candid assessment is a startling contrast to what you hear from Big Tech.

Facial recognition isn’t the only advanced data tracking technology up for sale at CES. Take ZeroKey, a company that makes a product called Big Room, which purports to track objects, vehicles, or even people with up to a millimeter of accuracy in 3D space using small, low-power sensors.

Ostensibly, the system is designed to help companies track products as they move throughout the supply chain. A tag could be placed on a package or pallet in a warehouse and be used to monitor how it makes its way through the facility. That data could be used to generate a more efficient path, for example, and then the same tag could be used in a retail environment to aid in loss prevention.

Matthew Lowe, ZeroKey’s co-founder and CEO explained that the system could even help a company like Amazon reduce costs by placing tags on workers and using the generated data to design more efficient workflows. “You’re looking at huge efficiency savings. Right off the top, 20% to 25% off your human supply chain costs, you can look at increasing productivity.”

Lowe seems to realize there could be some pushback to putting trackers on humans, but argues the benefits outweigh the employee privacy issues. “You’re making the employee more productive. You’re making them more competitive versus being automated out of a job,” Lowe says. “Some people, yes, would say ‘I don’t want to be tracked, I don’t want to have it,’ But you kind of see where that gets us when it comes to innovation, artificial intelligence, all these things happening. You can’t really fight that. It’d be better to leverage it to your advantage.”

“You’re saying it’s kind of a dichotomy between either you’re tracked or you’re automated out of a job?” I asked.

“Right. So, if it was me, I would want every advantage to maintain my position and what I can offer the company as a skill set.”

There’s no indication that Amazon is planning to use Zero Key in its warehouses. But in 2018, Amazon did file patents for wearable devices designed to streamline the process of scanning packages. However, concerns that the tech could also be used to track and micromanage employee movements — which are already subject to intense productivity targets — drew sharp criticism from employee rights organizations.

Amazon responded by calling speculation about employee tracking “misguided” and claiming that these devices would only be used to free up employees’ hands. Unlike ZeroKey, Amazon can’t openly discuss physically tracking employees without significant public outcry.

Cyberlink and ZeroKey are just two examples of companies selling increasingly granular surveillance tech, but they’re far from the only ones. Representatives for one company developing 5G technology told me they were excited for the rollout of facial recognition-powered surveillance cameras on every street corner. Another company touted fashion kiosks that could use facial recognition to analyze customer emotions and boost sales. One company seemed to shrug off concerns that their surveillance drone might be misused for something other than their intended purpose of home security, with the founder of the company saying simply “I don’t see why you would want to.”

Lowe offered one explanation for why these companies feel so comfortable marketing surveillance tech: He says that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so barring federal regulation that bans certain implementations, it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. In other words, if Google isn’t going to work with the cops, Amazon will. And even if Amazon decides not to, smaller companies out of the spotlight still will. The candid assessment is a startling contrast to what you hear from Big Tech. Mere feet from these smaller vendors, companies including Apple, Facebook, and Amazon discussed privacy on panels and trotted out rehearsed lines — Facebook’s privacy chief even said, without a hint of irony, that “I think privacy is protected today for people on Facebook.” But behind closed doors, and even on the brightly lit showroom floor, the wheels don’t stop turning, and contracts are being signed. For the average person, ubiquitous creeping surveillance might be something to resist, but at CES, it’s just good business.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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