Why I’m not upset about a supermarket scanning its customers’ faces

The British supermarket chain Tesco(s teso) is to install advertising screens with built-in cameras at 450 gas station checkouts, so that it can scan customers’ faces in a bid to target advertising at them more accurately.

Yes, we have previously seen retail technology that scans faces and links them to Facebook(s fb) profiles, as a kind of sped-up check-in mechanism, but the customer/target in that case needs to have a special app activated for the system to work. The technology in this case simply looks at whoever is looking at the video screen and works out their gender and age, as well as how many of them there are, and how many seem to be paying attention to the ad.

Scary? Not so much, and here — coming from someone who’s quite sensitive to privacy problems — is why.

Privacy invasion?

The “audience measurement” system in question is called OptimEyes and it comes from retail display firm Amscreen, in partnership with technology supplier Quividi. Tesco-owned “customer science” operation dunnhumby is also involved, taking the information it gleans from the scans and coming up with the right ads to serve.

Cue disgruntlement from privacy advocates, with Big Brother Watch’s Nick Pickles telling The Daily Telegraph: “People would never accept the police keeping a real-time log of which shops we go in, but this technology can do just that. It is a surveillance state by the shop door.”

The problem is, making references to the introduction of the surveillance state by the back door feels a bit last year. If Edward Snowden taught us anything, it’s that we already live in surveillance states. And the UK, with its roughly 6 million CCTV cameras, has long been at the vanguard.

And as for having your eyes tracked as you shop, this is again not a new thing. Procter & Gamble(s pg), for example, has a system called SellCheck that tracks eyes in order to see where on a retail display the customer is looking. There, the idea is to make better display layouts; in the case of Tesco and Amscreen, it is to select and time ads more appropriately, based on which demographics are most likely to be standing in front of the screen at a given time of day.

Principled approach

It’s fun to bring up the specter of Minority Report, as the media tends to do anytime there are video ads and customer tracking involved, but we’re not really talking about personalization here. We’re not even talking about identifying customers as such – unlike in the case of the abortive Renew scheme that used smart trashcans to suck unique smartphone identifiers from passers-by.

According to tech supplier Quividi:

  • There are no video recordings: since Quividi’s image processing algorithms operate in real time, no image or video is ever recorded
  • Audience data are fully anonymous: Quividi does not perform any biometric analysis to identify or “remember” single individuals; audience data are just aggregated counts, demographic labels and time values

Assuming that’s all true (and Tesco maintains it is), then Quividi and Amscreen should be congratulated for implementing privacy by design principles. Seeing as we live in a world of cameras and very clever algorithms, and that’s not going to un-happen, the best we can hope for is for the companies that implement the technology to minimize invasiveness, through either regulation or a desire to simply not annoy people.

If there weren’t already scores of CCTV cameras trained on customers as they wait in line, and if we weren’t all carrying around highly sensitive tracking devices – mobile phones – all day long, perhaps I’d see more of a problem with OptimEyes. I’d see the thin end of a wedge, but I don’t, because that wedge has already slid in quite a bit.

So, sorry, I just can’t get worked up about Tesco’s Amscreen scheme. There are plenty of technology-enabled privacy abuses to get angry about, but this kind of thing is just no longer worth the steam.