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Facial Recognition Software Brings Personalized Ads To The Supermarket


Facial recognition software is getting to the point where there are some very interesting things that can be done with it in everyday life. That includes really bad ideas like enabling the police to run record checks on everyone who passes in front of their body-worn cameras. But it also means that businesses can start applying the technology in novel ways. Here's what is happening on a trial basis in some German supermarkets and post offices, as reported by Deutsche Welle:

There's a camera and a screen set up by the check-out. A visual sensor scans the faces of waiting customers who have looked directly at the camera and detects whether they're male or female and how old they are.

Marketing company Echion is running the cameras and screens. The brands that advertise with them have clearly delineated target groups. If the visual sensor detects that enough people who fall into a company's target demographic are looking at the screen, an ad by this company will start playing.

Being shown ads that are likely to be more relevant to you is probably no bad thing. But once cameras are in place, it would be natural for shops to start using them for other more complex tasks, like spotting known shoplifters:

faces of individuals caught on camera are converted into a biometric template and cross-referenced with a database for a possible match with past shoplifters or known criminals. Some stores in the US give shoplifting suspects the option of allowing themselves to be photographed, rather than arrested. All this had been made possible by the arrival of networked, high-resolution security cameras and rapidly advancing analytical capabilities.

That's from a story in the Guardian last year, so it's likely that the technology has moved on considerably since then. It's easy to think of more troubling extensions to the idea of scanning shoppers: for example, linking up to other databases of troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells, or to selfies derived from social networks.

As well as obvious privacy issues, explored in the Deutsche Welle report, a more general concern is the normalization this latest application of facial scanning might produce. Once cameras coupled with facial recognition software are routinely installed in everyday settings like supermarkets -- with appropriate warnings -- perhaps we will begin to accept them as the norm, and barely notice their silent spread to other locations and situations.

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