Shopping With Big Brother: Why Stores Are Watching You



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That eerie feeling that you’re being watched when you shop? Don’t worry, that’s just Big Brother. The New York Times reports that the facial-recognition software already used by many retailers to spot potential shoplifters may soon be used to track high-spending customers, too.

The IT services company NEC Corporation is currently developing “VIP identification” software, which it describes as “suited to hospitality environments or businesses [that] need to identify important visitors.” The software monitors data from a store’s real-time CCTV, or surveillance cameras, matching faces against a database of important shoppers (read: big spenders or celebs). When a match is found, the company alerts hospitality personnel so the VIP can, well, be given the VIP treatment. Amazingly, the matching process takes less than a second, and alerts can be sent straight to retail workers' smartphones.

On first pass, we have no problems with a system that allows important customers to be greeted with the selection of Perriers and the fawning manner to which they are accustomed — and we’re sure they don’t either. But, the system does raise privacy concerns. NEC reports that its database will “likely be opt-in” for customers, but we have a hard time envisioning that. Allowing customers to opt in to this database takes away the illusion of VIP status: Surely, a high-rolling or famous shopper would expect to be recognized without the aid of software?

More likely, stores themselves will populate databases with VIPs and, well, less desirable people, too. As FaceFirst, a company that offers shopper-ID services, chirps on its website, “Just load existing photos of your known shoplifters, members of organized retail crime syndicates, persons of interest and your best customers into FaceFirst. [When] a person in your FaceFirst database steps into your store, you are sent an email or text that includes their picture and all biographical information of the known individual so you can take immediate and appropriate action.”

And, that, for us, is where things get scary. We don’t have any data on the accuracy of the facial-recognition software, but no human or computer surveillance system is foolproof. Let’s just hope the leader of a retail-crime syndicate doesn’t have our nose, lest "immediate action" be taken.

There are also the larger privacy concerns. Even if you’re not in any store’s system, shopper-ID software means that private corporations are maintaining databases that can identify shoppers by name, face, and, most disturbingly, “biographical information.” As the American Civil Liberties Union’s Christopher Calabrese says, “This is you, as an individual being monitored over time, and your movements and habits being recorded. That is a very scary technological reality.”

In the end, this may be a sad thing for the retail profession, too. In higher-end stores, experienced salespeople traditionally command a high salary, in part for their ability to remember faces and provide warm, personalized service. The fact that we’re now outsourcing that task to computers somewhat devalues those skills. As anyone who's ever gotten an incorrect "tag suggestion" from Facebook can attest, there’s no substitute for a human eye — or human discretion. (The New York Times)