New mall directories at select shopping centres in Calgary are equipped with cameras and connected to facial recognition software and not everyone is on board with the attempt to monitor visitor demographics.

The unmarked cameras on the digital directories gained exposure when a photograph of a directory with an open browser window was posted to Reddit.

“I think it’s unethical,” said Erin Steel. “I think that if you’re going to be recording my face and trying to identify who I am then I should be made aware of that.”

Steel says she didn’t notice the camera when she approached the directory in Chinook Centre but, after learning of its presence, she has hesitations. “I’ll think twice. I don’t have anything to hide but it does make you wonder what’s going on in the world.”

Mother and daughter Sandra and Georgia Oland were disappointed to learn of the monitoring.

“You can’t even opt out,” said Sandra Oland. “I feel like it’s a bit of an invasion of my privacy.”

“My daughter looking, as a minor, that doesn’t seem very appropriate and quite concerning.”

“I find it a little bit weird,” added Georgia. “I didn’t know about (the camera).”

Teenager Ebenezer Bedada believes the directories should warn shoppers that they’re being monitored.

“I think they should have something that says be aware that you’re being recorded right now and then the person could just walk away,” said the 15-year-old “It could be their choice.”

Representatives from Cadillac Fairview, the parent company of Chinook Centre, declined CTV’s request for an interview but released the following statement regarding the directories.

The cameras in our digital directories are there to provide traffic analysis to help us understand usage patterns and continuously create a better shopper experience. These cameras do not record or store any photo or video content

The directory unit contains software that counts people using the directory via the camera. In June, we began testing software that tries to predict approximate age and gender to further understand the usage of our directories, and with this still no video or photo feed is recorded or stored.

We are not sharing further details about the program including locations, as we view this as proprietary.

According to Cadillac Fairview officials, the cameras do not store photos or videos but estimate ages and genders in order to provide traffic analysis and usage patterns that will assist with the creation of a better shopping experience. The company began testing the technology in June.

Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says there have been no known complaints regarding the shopping centre directory cameras but the situation is being monitored.

The Commissioner is aware of the media reports and is considering how to proceed.  Anyone with concerns that their information was collected without consent may submit a privacy complaint to our office and we will investigate.

When our office investigates, we will look at what types of personal information are being collected, whether consent for collection or notice of collection is required or would be recommended, for what purposes personal information is collected, whether the data is being shared with other businesses, law enforcement or third parties, and what safeguards or security measures are in place to protect personal information.

Sharon Polsky with the Privacy and Access Council of Canada says it’s common for companies to monitor customer demographics and trends but their efforts are not always conducted in compliance with lax laws.

“This sort of thing has been going on for a long time in all sorts of retail environments and no one’s the wiser largely because companies do not put up the proper notices,” explained Polsky. “Although we do have privacy and access laws in Canada, they were mostly written around in the time when fax machines were being developed and they haven’t kept up. The laws have not been updated so they’re now fairly ineffective.”

She says while the information gathered could prove valuable to the owners of the malls, there could be a financial fallout if the public loses trust and elects to shop elsewhere.

Polsky believes companies will continue to adapt new ways of collecting personal information until the government puts an end to the practice. “They kind of have us over a barrel and that is again where ineffective laws allow it to happen. People need to start talking to their elective representatives and say we want laws updated to the 21st century now.”

With files from CTV’s Brenna Rose