No You're Not Paranoid: Eavesdropping Mannequins Could Be Invading Your Privacy

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In case the oddly skinny mannequins with the built-in shoe-feet and cream-coloured eyes weren't disturbing enough in all the stores, now this. We find out that they are watching us.

A company named Almax SpA has developed mannequins that can watch and listen to us as we do our shopping. Sure, this makes sense from a security point of view: just another way for the store to keep an eye on shoppers. But it turns out that they discovered a marketing use as well: The cameras are equipped with facial recognition to capture shopper demographics, and microphones to hear their comments. The resulting data enables stores to conduct general trend analysis and respond to aggregate shopper preferences.

According to Engadget:
The original rationale of such technology was to identify criminals in places like the airport, but retailers are apparently now using it to personalize store offerings. For example, one store found that a lot of shoppers after 4 pm were Asian, so it placed Chinese-speaking staff by the entrance at that time.
The Almax SpA website suggests that the EyeSee mannequins can be of use to track potential customers, i.e. the ones looking at display windows outside the store. Their system can provide anonymous stats on age, race, gender, time spent in front of the display through what the company claims highly secure data collection that works without the aid of a computer. The system apparently processes the video stream in real time to record only the data about the customers, not the video itself. That is, the video content is parsed into anonymous demographic data which is collected independent of the video feed. There is no video repository, so no personal information is stored in any location.

For now. From this particular version of the product.

I mean it would be easy for competitors to develop similar systems that just aren't as secure and that do store the captured video instead of rendering the data in real time. Plus, can we define "real time"? If there are even a few seconds of delay, the video feed could get hacked and that data could be used for other sinister purposes.

Consider this what if: Although they don't have our names, the time that it takes them to process the video could be enough of a delay to enable someone to copy the video, capturing your face and voice. From there, it's only a few steps until they identify you. It doesn't take a genius to buy some facial recognition software that searches the web for matches to a static image. They take a screen shot of the video, cross-reference with a web image search matching facial features (you've seen this done on TV, right? Well, it does exist). And hey! Isn't that your Facebook profile? Now suddenly they know your name, possibly your contact info, plus you've already divulged some of your shopping preferences in their store, they can look up your friends' names... without your consent. You didn't download an app, you didn't click "I agree" on a privacy notice... you just went to a store.

Oh, the potential abuses. Right?! Time to hit the Interwebz to do my shopping anonymou... oh wait. IP tracking. Dammit!!! They're following us everywhere!

(Seriously, I'm not an agoraphobe. Or a delusional paranoid hermit. Surprising, eh? *Puts on tin foil hat*)

Anyway, pay close attention next time you hit the stores this holiday season. Check out the mannequin at the store window a little more closely; it just might be interested to what you have to say.

See it in action (video is in Italian with English subtitles):

(Source: Engadget)

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