How Stores Spy On You

Pinhole cameras in the eyes of the mannequins, and hidden in clothing racks.

ANPR license plate cameras matching your car to you and your shopping habits.

Facial recognition systems cataloguing your every reaction to the goods on display.

Your phone (Bob help you if you have a smartphone) used as a tool to track you around the store and see where you linger.

Video ad monitors that watch you back, and play ads to fit your emotions.

Here I thought going to the store and buying with cash was the privacy-friendly alternative to shopping online. Now it turns out you gotta wear a mask…?

Defenses: Avoid big chain stores. Target in particular is known to be particularly aggressive about compromising people’s privacy in barely legal ways (c.f the pregancy data-mining thing). Stick to small shops that haven’t the time or the money to sell their souls to Big Data…

“Video cameras record your every move. Your face and car’s license plate are captured and filed in searchable databases. Hidden cameras classify you by age, sex, and ethnicity, and even detect your body language and mood. Even your bank account records are being pried into. The main goal of these surveillance methods, of course, is to get you to shop more and spend more.

If all of this is news to you, it’s probably because disclosure is poor to nonexistent, say experts familiar with these practices. Also, odds are you’ve never read or decoded what you’ve agreed to in bank, retailer, and app privacy policies. And you probably never imagined that retailers would be so interested in spying on honest shoppers. “While most consumers understand a need for security cameras, few expect that the in-store video advertising monitor they’re watching … is watching them” with a pinhole camera, says Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research group in San Diego.[…]

Super spy cams

High-resolution video cameras monitor all areas in and outside the store. The footage is then stored and catalogued for easy searching. With facial-recognition software, your mug shot can be captured and digitally filed without your knowledge or permission. Ditto for your car’s license plate.

What’s creepy about them: Gaze trackers are hidden in tiny holes in the shelving and detect which brands you’re looking at and how long for each. There are even mannequins whose eyes are cameras that detect the age, sex, ethnicity, and facial expressions of passers-by.

The video can be merged with a store’s other data, such as footage of you at the cash register plus the transaction details of what you bought, for how much, using what credit card. Your face and vehicle license plate can be linked. If that info is not securely stored, it could be hacked. Stores don’t provide sufficient disclosure, so you can’t opt out to protect your privacy. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission recommended clear disclosure to consumers, security standards for stored video, and customer opt-out or consent in certain circumstances.


Smart-phone tracking

Your mobile phone is an excellent device for tracking your shopping route. So retailers and malls are beginning to monitor all visitors’ cell signals, which help create “heat maps” that glow red where the most foot traffic is—perfect for showing where to best place displays, in-store ads, and high-margin merchandise. The retailer tracking systems can identify individual shoppers by monitoring your phone’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity number (constantly transmitted from all cell phones to their service providers) or Media Access Control address (transmitted when the device’s Wi-Fi is enabled, which is the default setting on most devices). That phone ID lets stores know when you shop—not just today but also every day your ID signal comes back in range.

What’s creepy about it: Cisco, the technology giant, is testing a system at an undisclosed store. It automatically detects your mobile device and connects you to the retailer’s free Wi-Fi network. “Once the customer gets on the network, he has opted in, and the privacy concerns are allayed,” says Sujai Hejela, general manager of Cisco’s wireless networking group.[…]

Personalized advertising

When you look at onscreen video ads, they might be looking right back at you. Tiny pinhole cameras can be built into the monitor. Facial-detection technology determines your age group, sex, ethnicity, and maybe even your mood, so it can serve up a message targeted to you. And radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags placed on the merchandise detect when you pick up an item. They can trigger a nearby digital sign to feed you targeted ads or details about the product. Kiosks and interactive touch screens often do the same thing.

What’s creepy about it: Not only are stores doing little or nothing to disclose that signs are watching you, but some privacy advocates also fear that the technology also could be used for discriminatory pricing based on age, sex, or ethnicity.”

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