Vending machine error reveals secret face image database of college students

This article is authored by Ashley Belanger for ArsTechnica.

Canada-based University of Waterloo is racing to remove M&M-branded smart vending machines from campus after outraged students discovered the machines were covertly collecting facial-recognition data without their consent.

The scandal started when a student using the alias SquidKid47 posted an image on Reddit showing a campus vending machine error message, “Invenda.Vending.FacialRecognitionApp.exe,” displayed after the machine failed to launch a facial recognition application that nobody expected to be part of the process of using a vending machine.

“Hey, so why do the stupid M&M machines have facial recognition?” SquidKid47 pondered.

The Reddit post sparked an investigation from a fourth-year student named River Stanley, who was writing for a university publication called MathNEWS.

Stanley sounded alarm after consulting Invenda sales brochures that promised “the machines are capable of sending estimated ages and genders” of every person who used the machines without ever requesting consent.

This frustrated Stanley, who discovered that Canada’s privacy commissioner had years ago investigated a shopping mall operator called Cadillac Fairview after discovering some of the malls’ informational kiosks were secretly “using facial recognition software on unsuspecting patrons.”

Only because of that official investigation did Canadians learn that “over 5 million nonconsenting Canadians” were scanned into Cadillac Fairview’s database, Stanley reported. Where Cadillac Fairview was ultimately forced to delete the entire database, Stanley wrote that consequences for collecting similarly sensitive facial recognition data without consent for Invenda clients like Mars remain unclear.

Stanley’s report ended with a call for students to demand that the university “bar facial recognition vending machines from campus.”

A University of Waterloo spokesperson, Rebecca Elming, eventually responded, confirming to CTV News that the school had asked to disable the vending machine software until the machines could be removed.

Students told CTV News that their confidence in the university’s administration was shaken by the controversy. Some students claimed on Reddit that they attempted to cover the vending machine cameras while waiting for the school to respond, using gum or Post-it notes. One student pondered whether “there are other places this technology could be being used” on campus.

Elming was not able to confirm the exact timeline for when machines would be removed other than telling Ars it would happen “as soon as possible.” She told Ars she is “not aware of any similar technology in use on campus.” And for any casual snackers on campus wondering, when, if ever, students could expect the vending machines to be replaced with snack dispensers not equipped with surveillance cameras, Elming confirmed that “the plan is to replace them.”

Please click on this link to read the full article.

Image credit: Image by Freepik

Your account