Surveillance, For Your Benefit?

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on retailers’ use of camera surveillance to glean intelligence from shoppers’ behavior.  A company called RetailNext, for instance, runs its software through a store’s security camera video feed to analyze customer behavior.  It describes itself as the “leader in real-time in-store monitoring, enabling retailers and manufacturers to collect, analyze and visualize in-store data.”  According to the company, it “uses best-in-class video analytics, on-shelf sensors, along with data from point-of-sale and other business systems, to automatically inform retailers about how people engage in their stores.”  RetailNext’s software can integrate data from hardware such as RFID chips and motion sensors to track customers’ movements.  The company explains that it “tracks more than 20 million shoppers per month by collecting data from more than 15,000 sensors in retail stores.”  Its service apparently helps stores figure out where to place certain merchandise to boost sales.  T-Mobile uses similar technology from another firm 3VR, whose software tracks how people move around their stores, how long they stand in front of displays, and which phones they pick up and for how long.  3VR is testing facial-recognition software that can identify shoppers’ gender and approximate age.   Businessweek explains that the “software would give retailers a better handle on customer demographics and help them tailor promotions.”  What we are seeing is, according to 3VR’s CEO, just “scratching the surface as someday “you’ll have the ability to measure every metric imaginable.”

Indeed.  Little imagination is needed to predict the future in light of our present.  As Joseph Turow‘s important new book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Worth (Yale University Press) explores, data collection and analysis of individuals is breathtaking.  In the name of better, more relevant advertising and marketing efforts, companies like Acxiom have databases teeming with our demographic data (age, gender, race, ethnicity, address, income, marital status), interests, online and offline spending habits, and heath status based on our purchases and online comments (diabetic, allergy sufferer, and the like).  Consumers are sorted into categories such as “Corporate Clout,” “Soccer and SUV,” “Mortgage Woes,” and “On the Edge.”  eXelate gathers online data of over 200 million unique individuals per month through deals with hundreds of sites: their demographics, social activities, and social networks.  Advertisers can add even more data to eXelate’s cookies– data from Nielsen, which includes Census Bureau data, as well as data brokers’ digital dossiers.  Data firms like Lotame track the comments that people leave on sites and categorize them.  Now, let’s consider weaving in facial recognition software and retailer cameras of companies like 3VR and RetailNext.  And to really top things off, let’s think about linking all of this data to cellphone location information.  The surveillance of networked spaces would be totalizing.

Turow’s book exposes important costs of these developments.  This post will discuss a few–hopefully, I can have Professor Turow on for a Bright Ideas feature.  This sort of targeting and hyper surveillance leaves many with far more narrow options and with social discrimination.  Marketers use these databases to determine if Americans are worthy “targets” or not-worth-bothering with “waste.”  For the “Soccer and SUV” moms between 35 and 45 who live in the West Coast and want to buy a small car, car companies may offer them serious discounts via online advertisements and e-mail.  But their “On the Edge” counterparts get left in the cold with higher prices–why bother trying to attract people who don’t pay their debts?  All of this sorting encourages media to offer soft stories designed to meet people’s interests, as secretly determined by those gathering and analyzing our networked lives.  This discussion brings to mind to another important read: Julie Cohen‘s Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press).   As Professor Cohen thoughtfully explores, this sort of surveillance has a profound impact on the creative play of our everyday lives.  It creates hierarchies among those watched and systematizes difference.  I’ll have lots more to say about Cohen’s take on our networked society more generally, soon.  In March, we will be hosting an online symposium on her book–much to look forward to in the new year.

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