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Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"


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    Marketplace: When stores, and credit firms, watch you shop

    We’ve discussed before the increasing use of facial-recognition technology, especially in advertising in “digital signage.” Most people have heard of the term connected with billboards or other screens that have cameras (and facial-recognition technology) to watch people watching ads in order to improve their marketing. The digital signs log data such as gender, approximate age and how long someone looks at an advertisement. In July, the Wall Street Journal looked at the use of facial-recognition systems to estimate individuals’ age and gender as they shop. The Washington Times reported on the use of billboards with facial-recognition technology to identify individuals for a variety of purposes. In November, Bloomberg News took an in-depth look at the use of secret cameras in store mannequins to identify the age, gender and race of shoppers — and the privacy questions this identification can raise.

    Now, Marketplace reports that retailers are consider facial-recognition cameras that can link up to data from cellphone companies consumer credit reporting agencies, such as Experian, to find out the shopper’s age and credit history but not the person’s name for targeted behavioral advertising purposes:

    New “smart” security cameras can help stores do a whole lot more than stop shoplifters, says Brian Kiraly. His company, Infusion, just developed one of these cameras with Microsoft.

    “What that does is a partial facial recognition. It takes cheeks, chin, eyes and basically gets gender and age,” he said, demonstrating the camera at the National Retail Federation trade show in New York. [...]

    Retailers can use this information to decide what to stock, where to put it and where and how to advertise. Brick and mortar stores are hungry for all of the information they can get on their customers. The kind of information online retailers know. So many are trading security cameras in for smart cameras.

    “We can actually look at your movements, such as how you go from a merchandise table in the front to a merchandise table in the back,”says Roseanne McCauley, vice president of Experian Footfall, a new business started by the big consumer credit report agencies. It supplies all kinds of foot traffic data to merchants. “Whether you go up the escalator or not. We can also do dwell time: How long did you stay in a specific area.” [...]

    Experian is teaming up with cell phone companies to take customer tracking to the next level. When you walk into a participating store, your cell phone company will tell Experian who you are, Experian will tap into the vast pool of data it has on you — things like age and credit history. Then, without telling stores who you are, Experian will hand some of that information over to stores.

    “There are all sorts of privacy issues around cell phone data, so no one is able to take a cell phone number and bring it to a person,” says McCauley. “But what we can do is profile groups of people and give people a demographic code.” [...]

    If you’re suddenly feeling the urge to wear a ski mask everywhere and ditch your phone,  you’re having exactly the reaction retailers are worried about, says digital marketing consultant Will Riegel.

    “Every single day, people in data, are concerned about the ‘creep’ factor,” he says.

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