Facial recognition for hotel guests may suffer customer backlash

Image by Dmitry

Singapore recently launched a new initiative, the E-Visitor Authentication (EVA) System, to enable faster verification of guests’ stay validity, that will also facilitate a seamless hotel check-in experience for guests by using facial recognition technology.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) claims that the system will speed up the check-in process by 70%. The system can be used on a mobile app or a kiosk in the hotel that will scan the guest’s passports to check-in.

Participating hotels can then use facial recognition technology to authenticate their guests’ identities, and the guest data will be sent to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to verify the validity of their stay.

The STB claims the new arrangement will allow hotel front office staff to use the time saved to interact with guests and share customised recommendations on Singapore’s offerings and experiences. With the increased face-to-face engagement, hotel staff will be able to connect meaningfully with guests and in turn, improve guest satisfaction levels.

Currently, there are three hotels in Singapore using this technology – Ascott Orchard, Swissotel The Stamford and Grand Park City Hall. Many other hotels are expected to install the EVA system.

The concept of providing better customer service by recognising guests is nothing new. The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok in the 1980’s was renowned for its personal service supposedly achieved by secretly photographing guests at check-in and distributing the images to all departments. Guests were astounded to be welcomed by name wherever they went in the hotel. However, in this day and age, linking and tracking guests and sharing their data with a government authority adds a new dimension that may not go down so well with guests.

The rollout of facial recognition technology is already causing widespread privacy concerns in many countries. In China, a system already scans all passengers at train stations supposedly to help decide which passengers require further security checks. It has already raised issues about confidentiality.

And, even though the technology is being used to increase security it could, in fact, do the opposite. What if the system was broached by skilled hackers keen to hijack then user’s data and physical identity.

Customers expecting confidentially and data protection may not be keen to find out that they be tracked using facial recognition well outside the confines of their hotel. Would this leave the hotels vulnerable to customer complaints and the subsequent commercial risk?

One has to ask why such a sophisticated, and presumably expensive, system would be required to speed up the hotel check-in procedure when adding more staff or using simple hotel loyalty apps are already in existence.

The need to share data about guests with authorities shows that this technology is doubling as a surveillance tool. Savvy travellers will pick this up and may shun establishments that install the system, or even avoid visiting countries that introduce mass surveillance systems, not because they have something to hide, but more because they feel their privacy is being exploited.

Monitoring citizens is one thing, but a system designed specifically to monitor visitors is something quite different.

One study conducted by Monmouth University Polling Institute found that 82% of respondents believe the government is watching the actions of US citizens through technology. Consequently, there is a very real risk that many guests at these Singaporean hotels may believe that this technology is being used for nefarious purposes.

Unlike the internal use of facial recognition at the Oriental Hotel in days gone by, this technology is a way for authorities to monitor visitors to their country, but with the privacy of guests impacted, could cause commercial damage to the hotels involved.

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