Customer Beware: You Are Being Tracked
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Good old CCTV tracking is undergoing a makeover. The latest twist in retail tracking involves the use of spy cameras in store window mannequins. A recent exposé in BusinessWeek spotlighted “EyeSee,” sold by Italian mannequin maker Almax. It reports that individual mannequins cost $5,130 and five upscale retailers have deployed “a few dozen” of them; Almax would not divulge the companies using the devices. The article noted that "bionic mannequins are spying on shoppers to boost luxury sales.”
The story also points out that the “device has spurred shops to adjust window displays, store layouts and promotions to keep consumers walking in the door and spending.” The camera system comes with sophisticated facial-recognition software that identifies key demographic elements like gender, race and age. In addition, the mannequin camera tracks how long a person lingers before a window display. Almax is now developing voice-recognition technology “to allow retailers to eavesdrop on what shoppers say about the mannequin’s attire.”
Facial recognition technology (FTC) is the new frontier in video monitoring. It turns the object of surveillance into a subject, a distinct person, by filling out the subject’s selfhood with an endless universe of data. FTC functions in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it enables researchers to assess facial characteristics, thus to detect and recognize a specific face. For example, “smart” cameras are being integrated into digital signs to determine the demographic characteristics of a viewer (e.g., age, gender) and then present an appropriate, targeted advertisement. More sophisticated FTC programs claim they can identify a person’s mood or emotional status. One company, SceneTap, promises to determine the demographics of customers at bars and nightclubs.
Pushing the envelope, NEC launched a facial recognition system in Japan that goes beyond gender and age. It supposedly can specify whether the shopper has been at the store before and how frequently he shops there. The program is called “NeoFace” and is leased at $800 per month.
Facial recognition technology is morphing to the web. Facebook is employing facial-recognition technology, “tag suggestions," to assist in photo tagging; this app has been barred in Europe.
Retailers are notorious for collecting information on their customers. Stores as different as Target and Domino’s Pizza work closely with product suppliers, especially major brands, to track what customers buy. Many of these companies build extensive database profiles of each purchaser. When someone buys a product, the customer is assigned an ID number that becomes part of the store’s tracking system. Detailed records are kept of all subsequent purchases. Additional information, often acquired from “data aggregators,” is often added to fill-out the customer profile.
Data is gathered from credit card transactions, store discount cards and coupons, and even product returns. In addition, a product’s barcode information is captured during the purchase and integrated into a consumer’s profile. This tracking is ostensibly intended to better target coupons and other incentives to the appropriate customers like, for example, a pregnant woman receiving coupons for diapers and baby food.
Even product returns are fodder for personal information tracking. National chains like the Children’s Place and Victoria’s Secret require a shopper to present a personal ID (e.g., driver’s license) when returning a product – and the ID is scanned, the data entered into a company’s tracking database. The purpose of such tracking is to ostensibly prevent what is known as “renting,” a fraud of buying an item to wear and return. According to the National Retail Federation, 62 percent of retailers, including major vendors like Home Depot and Target, now require IDs with returns.
The tracking and profiling taking place in retail outlets is just one aspect of a widening digital communications web that is increasingly ensnaring ordinary Americans. The “web” consists of both government entities (federal and local) and private corporations (retail, online and telecom) that track, monitor and surveil everyone using inter-connected digital media. Most troubling, they are sharing the information, “data,” they collect.