PropTech Challenge and Yacht Party, Nov. 29th | NYC REAL ESTATE TECH WEEK →

The Risks and Rewards of Facial Recognition Tech in Office Buildings

Offices have been integrating much more technology over the last several years, especially as a way to bring people back after the pandemic. One of the most advanced technologies that is being deployed is facial recognition. Facial recognition is being used as a type of biometric key, one that can grant access to doors and dispatch the proper elevators. Within the office itself, many companies are using the technology for things like tracking attendance, screening job candidates, and monitoring worker productivity. Makers of the technology tout its efficiency and ease of use for routine tasks like entering and leaving a building and monitoring employee movement and attendance. But not everyone is on board. Facial recognition has also generated criticism over the ethics of using biometrics in the workplace, as well as worries over privacy and accuracy. 

We may be seeing more face-reading technology in buildings these days but it’s something that’s been around for decades. Computerized facial recognition technology grew out of research by a group of scientists in the 1960s who worked on training computers to recognize human faces. These early computer programs created by the pioneering researchers were able to match facial features to a database, the defining feature of today’s facial recognition software. It’s being used in many commercial buildings for access control, where workers can simply stand still for a quick face scan and be able to enter a building without a badge or key card in hand. It’s the same for elevators, where a worker is recognized and taken to the floor where they work in a touch-free experience. 

This kind of technology has become a popular choice inside government buildings, airports, and industrial facilities like warehouses, said Brad Donaldson, vice president and general manager of SAFR SCAN, a division of RealNetworks. The company makes AI products including facial recognition technology for access control in buildings, but before that, it was a pioneer in Internet streaming software and services. A few years ago, RealNetworks began developing some algorithms for facial recognition for some consumer products. The algorithms worked very well for live video applications but after exploring using them for surveillance apps, they didn’t get a lot of traction. “I think people are still a little afraid of the public sentiment of facial recognition and the legal ramifications of this in a public environment where people don’t know they’re being surveilled,” Donaldson told me. Once he joined the firm, Donaldson believed access control was the way to go instead. His company’s product for access control involves an edge device, where all data and processing is done on the piece of equipment instead of being connected to a central server with several computers on it. “It’s faster, often cheaper, and considered safer,” he said. 

What makes facial recognition better than the ubiquitous badge readers that have become a hallmark of office buildings? Donaldson points to a few reasons. With face-reading devices, workers don’t have to keep track of and carry a badge, and that means more convenience and a safer building, a lost badge or one lent to someone else carries security risks. Another risk that facial recognition tech could help with is the occurrence of someone coming into the building behind another person once a door opens, a move the industry calls “tailgating.” Facial recognition devices not only read faces, but they can track tailgaters through the camera and can send an alert with a photo or video clip with an image of the person. 

The biometric space is growing quickly and facial recognition technology is one of those emerging industries. Donaldson’s firm is one of many hoping to bite into the $1.6 billion badge reader market. Along with the face-reading access control tech that RealNetworks kicked off about a year ago, the company is preparing to release another similar product soon. But there are barriers to more widespread adoption. Besides the public perception of the technology, the price point is maybe the largest hurdle. “Once we hit the right price point, and we think we’re there, we’ll start to see really fast growth in the space,” Donaldson said. 

Traditional badge systems can range anywhere from $200 to $1,000, while other security options like fingerprint readers are typically around $1,000. Facial recognition tech typically costs several thousand dollars. While expensive, face reading tech can also serve as both an entry system and a security camera, since they are installed facing doorways and can capture visitors very clearly and record video. So far, Donaldson’s company has been working with clients in government buildings, including a large number of government properties in Mexico City, education, airports, and warehouses, and is seeing more office buildings use their tech internationally, more so than in the United States. There is widespread use of the tech in China and it has been growing in popularity in countries in Europe and Asia. One of the reasons Donaldson sees it being adopted less in America is due to the fact that many buildings are still not fully back to pre-pandemic occupancy numbers.

That’s certainly been the case in New York City, where office occupancy has been slowly rising but still hovers around 50 percent on average during the week, according to Kastle Systems. Still, facial recognition technology is getting the attention of major office owners. One of NYC’s largest commercial property owners began installing facial recognition tech in its buildings back in 2015. Vornado began using the technology in 11 of its 35 buildings in NYC and planned to eventually adopt the systems throughout its entire portfolio, a company executive told Business Insider back in 2020. The tech allows office workers the option to opt in or opt out of the system and at the time, Vornado had about a 40 percent participation rate in buildings where the tech was installed prior to 2020. Like most facial recognition technology, images of a worker’s face are not tied to someone’s identity and the biometric information is protected through encryption and is stored on a system that can’t be accessed through the internet. “We are constantly looking to adopt new, cutting-edge technologies that will make our buildings more efficient and life more convenient for our tenants,” said Vornado Vice Chairman David Greenbaum about the decision to install the technology.

As facial recognition technology has become more mainstream, we’ve gotten a better idea of how people feel about it. A Pew Research Center survey published earlier this year found that the majority of adults in the U.S. are against the use of facial recognition tech to analyze employees’ facial expressions. But when it came to using the technology to track employee attendance, the views were more mixed. Those surveyed also expressed doubts about the accuracy of facial recognition, with a majority saying it would incorrectly read expressions and nearly half saying it would misidentify office workers or recognize some skin tones better than others. A number of vendors in the human resources industry have used facial recognition tech to aid them in evaluating job candidates in video interviews. But using this kind of tech brings risks. A study by MIT and Stanford University found that multiple facial analysis tech products showed bias in skin type and gender, showing that the tech performed better for men and lighter-skinned people and worse for women who were darker-skinned. To avoid this, experts have urged companies using the software to test it out across very large samples before trusting the outcomes the systems give them.

Andrew Farah is the co-founder and CEO of Density, a software company that measures the performance of office space using anonymized sensor technology. His views on facial recognition technology are based on a longstanding legal test: the reasonable expectation of privacy. Using face-reading tech in access control, which is typically stationed at the front entrance of a building, is a place most people would consider to be public, and an area Farah sees as “completely acceptable” to use that kind of tech. But within a private office, many workers would have an expectation of privacy, and especially if a tenant is using this kind of tech to measure space usage, there are better ways, Farah said. “I think cameras are an extremely lazy thing to reach for when we have much better mechanisms to understand how space is used,” he said. 

Using face-reading tech in office buildings is likely to stick around, especially as it becomes more affordable and continues to be a popular choice in other kinds of commercial buildings, like airports, entertainment venues, and schools. If we’ve learned anything from recent events, it’s to think carefully about how it’s used and the potential backlash that could occur as a result. While the concerns over facial recognition may seem surprising given how millions of Americans use the same kind of system to unlock their cell phones multiple times a day, it’s something that could be a sticking point in office buildings for some time. For landlords and office tenants considering the technology, striking a balance between streamlined efficiency and the trust of occupants could help smooth out any lingering worries.

Image - Design