Retail Surveillance Is About To Make Your Online Targeting Seem A Lot Less Creepy

For as long as I have been covering digital media -- and especially behavioral targeted advertising -- technology companies and ad networks have complained that they're being held to a higher standard of consumer privacy protection than the off-line world. After all, credit card companies, magazine companies, telemarketers, and direct mail have all been swapping our names, addresses, and demographics for decades. But despite industry protests, digital data tracking has always been seen as somehow more surreptitious and dangerous than offline data gathering.

Well, the retail segment may actually be doing online advertisers and technology companies an unintentional favor. The amount of surveillance, user tracking, and data sharing that is starting to go on in physical retail locations may make consumers forget altogether the relatively tame uses of data by the online advertising ecosystem.

An article in Consumer Reports’ ShopsSmart magazine this month entitled "How Stores Spy on You" counts all the many ways retailers are using a variety of devices in and around their stores to do something other than just monitor security.

I have to admit that the reporting in this article is a bit fast and loose.  A number of technologies are discussed that are possible at retail without very clear indications of how widespread the actual practice has become, and with which retailers. For instance, there’s mention of dressing room "Booty Cams" that not only check the fit of your jeans from the rear for your benefit but also are accumulating data points about shoppers’ sizes and fashion preferences. Another technology discussed is the gaze trackers that can be embedded on store shelves to track where people are looking on the shelf and even the the facial expressions of passersby.

The article even makes people aware that the digital signage they may encounter at airports and shopping malls is also looking back at them, using facial recognition software and other forms of detection to see how they respond to advertising, and even how many and what type of users are viewing the signage.

And of course the ultimate out-of-home bogey is the mobile phone and what it can tell local venues about you even if you’re not actively interacting with it. For instance, indoor WiFi networks may be able to monitor cell phone signals within a mall setting to determine traffic patterns. We do already know that some WiFi hotspot networks are offering this kind of tracking of cell phones that are hitting the Wi-Fi network within the venue, but even here the usage is actually quite limited for now.

No retailer would go on record with the magazine to discuss whether they're implementing any of these technologies and what policies they have in place to protect privacy. And there is a good solid question here about how and where a retailer sufficiently informs its customers that not only are they under surveillance by security cameras but that their actual activities within the store may be providing much more granular data about them. I guess the-opt out mechanism here is simply not entering the store altogether. Or perhaps the next stage of the technology will offer a way for users to cloak themselves electronically and get a kind of high-tech opt-out cookie that they wear while in the store.

Whether a story like this from a major consumer publication will get any traction remains to be seen. But at the very least, it’s likely to take some of the heat off digital marketing. A camera embedded in a store shelf running facial recognition software on a shopper makes an anonymous cookie planted in a browser seem trivial.

il without very clear indications of how widespread the actual practice has become, and with which retailers. For instance, there’s mention of dressing room "Booty Cams" that not only check the fit of your jeans from the rear for your benefit but also are accumulating data points about shoppers’ sizes and fashion preferences. Another technology discussed is the gaze trackers that can be embedded on store shelves to track where people are looking on the shelf and even the the facial expressions of passersby.

The article even makes people aware that the digital signage they may encounter at airports and shopping malls is also looking back at them, using facial recognition software and other forms of detection to see how they respond to advertising, and even how many and what type of users are viewing the signage.

And of course the ultimate out-of-home bogey is the mobile phone and what it can tell local venues about you even if you’re not actively interacting with it. For instance, indoor WiFi networks may be able to monitor cell phone signals within a mall setting to determine traffic patterns. We do already know that some WiFi hotspot networks are offering this kind of tracking of cell phones that are hitting the Wi-Fi network within the venue, but even here the usage is actually quite limited for now.

No retailer would go on record with the magazine to discuss whether they're implementing any of these technologies and what policies they have in place to protect privacy. And there is a good solid question here about how and where a retailer sufficiently informs its customers that not only are they under surveillance by security cameras but that their actual activities within the store may be providing much more granular data about them. I guess the-opt out mechanism here is simply not entering the store altogether. Or perhaps the next stage of the technology will offer a way for users to cloak themselves electronically and get a kind of high-tech opt-out cookie that they wear while in the store.

Whether a story like this from a major consumer publication will get any traction remains to be seen. But at the very least, it’s likely to take some of the heat off digital marketing. A camera embedded in a store shelf running facial recognition software on a shopper makes an anonymous cookie planted in a browser seem trivial.

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2 comments about "Retail Surveillance Is About To Make Your Online Targeting Seem A Lot Less Creepy".
  1. Laurie Sullivan from lauriesullivan , March 29, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.
    Makes me want to shop online more and stay out of stores.
  2. Chris Vinson from Vinson Advertising , April 1, 2013 at 2:58 p.m.
    People will stop going and tell their children not to go into dressing rooms and participating retail stores anymore if they find these ridiculous surveillance techniques are implemented. We don't need to track everything into oblivion, online or offline.