Look Who's Watching You

Article excerpt

The curvy mannequin piqued the interest of a couple of lanky teenage boys. Little did they know that as they groped its tight maroon shirt in the clothing store that day, video cameras were rolling.At a mall, a father emerged from a store dragging his unruly young son by the scruff of the neck, as if he were the family cat. The man had no idea his parenting skills were being immortalized.At an office supply store, a mother decided to get an item from a high shelf by balancing her small child on her shoulders, unaware that she, too, was being recorded.These scenes may seem like random shopping bloopers, but they are meaningful to stores that are striving to engineer a better experience for the consumer, and ultimately, higher sales for themselves. Such clips, retailers say, can help them find solutions to problems in their stores—by installing seating and activity areas to mollify children, for instance, or by lowering shelves so merchandise is within easy reach.Privacy advocates, though, are troubled by the array of video cameras, motion detectors and other sensors monitoring the nation’s shopping aisles.Many stores and the consultants they hire are using the gear not to catch shoplifters but to analyze and to manipulate consumer behavior. And while taping shoppers is legal, critics say it is unethical to observe people as if they were lab rats. They are concerned that the practices will lead to an even greater invasion of privacy, particularly facial recognition technology, which is already in the early stages of deployment.Companies that employ this technology say it is used strictly to determine characteristics like age and gender, which help them discover how different people respond to various products. But privacy advocates fear that as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it will eventually cross the line and be used to identify individual consumers and gather more detailed information on them.“I think it is absolutely inevitable that this stuff is going to be linked to individuals,” said Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, an advocacy group.Some degree of privacy, experts say, is necessary as a matter of decency.“When someone’s watching me, I’m going to act differently than when I think I’m alone,” Albrecht said. “Did I pick my nose? What was I doing? What did they see?”The most basic surveillance setup has been around for a few years. It uses video cameras in ceilings and sensors near fitting rooms to learn how many customers pass through the doors and where they tend to go. At the other extreme, some retailers are taping shoppers’ every movement and using specialized analysis to study the shoppers’ behavior. For example, after seeing scores of customers struggle to navigate a particular area, analysts might suggest that the retailer widen the aisle.The companies that install and analyze video for retailers say that they are sensitive to privacy issues but that the concerns are overblown. They say they are not using the technology to identify consumers but to give them easier and more enjoyable shopping experiences. And, they added, they have the sales results to prove it.For example, Cisco Systems, the supplier of networking equipment, said one of its clients, the outdoor recreation retailer Cabela’s, installed cameras to monitor how long sales clerks took to approach customers.“Far fewer customers were being approached within their guidelines than they thought,” said Joanne Bethlahmy, a director at Cisco’s Internet business solutions group. …