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Customer Beware: You Are Being Tracked

From CCTV cameras to RFID wristbands, retailers are monitoring everything you do.
 
 
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Are you planning to visit Disneyland anytime soon? If so, watch out when you are offered its latest marketing innovation, the MagicBand. When it's introduced later this year, this oh-so-cuddly wristband will be embedded with a radio frequency identification (RFID) microchip and be part of a system dubbed MyMagic+.  It will enable the company to monitor, track and analyze your every activity. 

A recent New York Times exposé reveals how the giant entertainment conglomerate plans to employ some of the latest spy technologies to “customize” its operations. According to the Times, “Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy’s hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to refine its offerings and customize its marketing messages." Sound innocent?

Disney’s plan to implement customer tracking is just the latest revelation about an expanding program of personal surveillance enveloping ever-greater aspects of personal life, online and in the physical world.  

Sadly, most Americans do not know the true scope of the tracking and surveillance now taking place. Four simple questions need to be addressed: 1) What is happening to all the personal data being captured? 2) How long is it being retained? 3) To what extent is it being sold to third-party commercial vendors? 4) Is your “private,” personal data being provided to government law enforcement authorities? 

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Next time you're walking around a department store, keep in mind that you are being monitored and analyzed in two complementary ways. First, your in-store movements are being electronically tracked, recorded and analyzed; second, your data history is being captured, updated, sold, integrated with other database information and analyzed. The two dimensions of your 21st-century public “self,” your physical behavior and your digital communications, are now subject to nearly instantaneous and ceaseless monitoring.

Corporations are expanding the scope of tracking with the use of two technologies, WSN (wireless sensor networks) and CCTV (closed-circuit television). WSN is a network of sensors within a large coverage area, like a mega-store. It is adaptable and flexible, capable of tracking cart movement and shelf inventory. 

In some of the most sophisticated outlets, wireless transmitters are embedded in shopping carts and in overhead sensors. These devices map how a customer moves through the store, where she stops to read the label or compare prices. Of special interest to retailers is the time spent in front of a display or kiosk, in a dressing room or the lavatory.

Still another application of wireless transmitter usage involves a system developed by IBM, dubbed “data-talks-to-data.” Sophisticated sensors, what some call “electronic noses,” are being embedded in the walls of buildings such as airports to detect threats, alert security services and track a person carrying a suspicious substance. It’s only a matter of time before they are placed in dressing rooms to identify the perfume a shopper is wearing. 

CCTV systems are being increasingly used to track customers. The system of choice integrates a stationary PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) camera with rotating and zooming functions and a sophisticated analytic software program. Cameras are strategically placed at the entry and exit of the store as well as at the loading-unloading areas. In addition, they are being installed above shelves, end caps, counters and in departments. Frequently, they are placed near costlier items like jewelry and electronic products. 

Video tracking helps map customer flow patterns, assess point-of-sale displays and purchasing habits. One company, Vizualize, sells “end-to-end solutions [that] track customer interaction times with products, store windows and point-of-purchase displays to measure their effectiveness in enticing shoppers to the store and conversion.”  The company insists that "shoppers [are] never recognized nor integrated to systems in a fashion that could identify [an] individual without their explicit permission.”

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.  

Plan to visit Disney World? You’ll be tracked. Pay with a credit card at your local grocery store, you’ll be tracked. Your car insurance company can track the speed you drive, linking your fees to a good driving record. 

Private-sector tracking that takes place in retail outlets, even the apparently innocuous mannequin cameras, is part of a much larger monitoring, information gathering and commodification effort now underway. In addition to retailers and entertainment resorts, the great digital data sucking now underway also includes companies that enable digital communications, like AT&T and Verizon; that facilitate commercial transactions, like Visa and PayPal; and that collect or aggregate personal data, repackage it and offer it for sale, like Acxiom and LexisNexis. 

Together, these types of companies turn a person’s private digital life, as well as the person, into a commodity.  Where is the FTC when we really need it?

 

David Rosen is regular contributor to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

 

 
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