Corporate Snooping on Consumers

You've heard of the Little Shop of Horrors, but now comes the Little Boutique of Retail Ethnography.

"Retail ethnography" is a bit of corporate gobbledygook that essentially means spying, prying, snooping, and generally intruding into the private lives of us consumers. It sprang from a simpler, more honest process called "market research," involving taking consumer surveys and asking customers directly about their opinions of products and such. But, now, this research has gotten sneakier and darker.

Instead of being aboveboard with shoppers, retail ethnography is the underhanded art of surveillance, using all of the latest technological gadgetry to monitor shoppers clandestinely. Hidden video cameras and microphones are computerized to "track" individual customers as they move through a store, identifying them by their body temperature and mapping their movements by passing them from camera to camera. If a customer lingers over a product, the cameras zoom in to record facial expressions.

The latest advance in the "intrusion explosion," as columnist William Safire has dubbed it, is a recently-opened Minneapolis boutique called Once Famous. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times reports that this inviting shop, filled with artsy, upscale home furnishings is really not in the business of selling ... but of spying. It's a front, set up by Omnicom Group Inc.--a global advertising giant.

Once Famous looks like a real store with clerks selling products to customers. But it's really a surveillance lab that's totally wired so analysts can watch the shoppers from a hidden control room. Manufacturers pay a fee to put a product in the store, then watch the video of customer reactions to the product. Most shoppers have no idea that their every movement is being recorded, analyzed ... and sold.

This is Jim Hightower saying ... Sadly, under current law, this commercialized invasion of our privacy is legal. To change these laws, contact Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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