bricks + mortar, demographics, marketing, online, privacy, transparency

Get me rewrite.

Very Odd “Facial Recognition” Article at smartplanet.com

Two things jumped out at me while reading San Francisco bars: Buy a drink, become profiled by cameras by Charlie Osborne at smartplanet.com: the scare quotes around forms of the word ‘anonymous’ and a novel formulation of privacy.

The scare quotes are here…

Venturebeat reports that Chicago-based startup Scenetap has combined “anonymous” facial recognition technology in venues with mobile technology so socialites can choose where next to go on a Friday based on their preferences — all provided through cameras in different venues.

…and here…

Scenetap promises the technology collects data “anonymously” and nothing is recorded or stored, and it is based on sophisticated profiling technology to approximate sex and age.

But why the scare quotes? By any definition, what Scenetap does is anonymous. It is specifically designed and marketed to clubs and their patrons as a means for gathering demographic information and that information cannot be traced back to a specific individual because it uses no individual identifier such as a person’s name (or cookie, but we’ll get to that later). To go further and collect personally identifying information would require a real facial recognition system which would be very expensive, require a large investment in training and labor and probably wouldn’t provide a sufficient return on investment (ROI) in a club/bar setting to make the effort worthwhile.

Then there’s the conception of privacy in this passage.

This type of technology is already prevalent online, where customer preferences and habits are tracked — in order to recommend products or pages you may be interested in. As we cannot see the data being collated, it seems less of a privacy issue than knowing that cameras above are observing you — even though the information collected about your online activity is far more vast.

There’s absolutely no equivalence between Scenetap and smartplanet.com. The image below shows that smartplanet.com places two cookies on a visitor’s computer and runs seven programs in the background of which most users would be completely unaware: three for tracking the user; three for connecting to social media; and one to monitor the site’s performance. One of the trackers, Crowd Science, even claims to be able to tell smartplanet.com about users’ interests, preferences, lifestyles, attitudes, opinions and incomes.

Real world demographic analysis tools like Scenetap do no such thing. It’s a dead certainty that smartplanet.com is collecting far more (and far more individualized) data, a fact that is acknowledged at the end of the quote.

Then there’s the part where transparency and privacy are inversely related because “As we cannot see the data being collated, it seems less of a privacy issue than knowing that cameras above are observing you.”

“Out of sight; out of mind” and “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” aren’t theories of privacy one sees many people advancing these days. By this logic, bricks-and-mortar demographics analysis can attain smartplanet.com’s level of respect for individual privacy by collecting vastly more information and using facial recognition technology to track individuals as long as they hide the cameras.

I don’t want this post to come across as grousing about what web sites do. The folks at smartplanet.com are working hard to put food on their family just like the rest of us and people should understand that if they aren’t paying, they aren’t the customer; they’re the product being sold. That’s just the way it is. This is completely uncontroversial to those who operate in the online economy; but let a bricks-and-mortar organization deploy a tool that collects far less information and there’s a tendency for those in the online world to come down with a collective case of the vapors. Physician, heal thyself.

See also:
Retail Marketing Technology Online and In Person
Transparency

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