Your Grocery Store Will Spy On You


This can't possibly work out well in the end. As you push a grocery cart down the food aisle, the shelf holding the Oreos display scans your face, recognizes your age and gender, and suddenly displays advertising video of snacks that are appropriate for your demographic.

The so-called "smart shelf," the brainchild of global snacks company Mondelez International , is an attempt to further meld technology and retail to help drive additional sales, but has creepy implications for privacy.

Grocery stores are already a high-tech maze laid out by behaviorists who understand the human psyche a bit -- there's a reason milk is always put in the furthest corner of the store from the door, candy is displayed at the checkout register, and shelves are laid out to have certain items displayed at a kid's-eye level. Adding facial recognition technology is seen as another step toward effective marketing.

Built on Microsoft's Kinect for Windows technology, the smart shelf when introduced in 2015 will be able to identify an item picked off the shelf by its weight, and then offer a coupon to provide the consumer with an additional incentive to make the purchase.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Mondelez says the system will not collect personal data, individually identify shoppers' facial features, or capture photos or video. No database will be compiled to match you to your previous shopping trips and purchasing habits.

How long, though, before other companies begin to do just that? It reminds me of the line from Jeff Goldblum's character Ian Malcolm in the movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park, "Oohh! Aahh! That's how it always starts, but then there's running and screaming."

All your base are belong to us
In reality, it's not so surprising the smart shelf is upon us. With the advent of the "Internet of Things" a few years back, when more devices became connected to the Internet than there were people on the Earth (and Cisco predicts some 25 billion devices will be connected by 2015, with as many as 50 billion by 2020), we now have everything from cars and cows to diapers and carpets being monitored. It's not just the proliferation of closed-circuit cameras watching our every move on the street corner, but Google's Glass technology will let us capture every movement of every person we meet.

We already think it's a bit creepy how Google "knows" the kinds of ads to display on our Web pages based on our searches and email content through AdSense. Earlier this summer, it released a white paper showing the predictive capabilities of which movies will be hits based on "the timing and category of Google searches and paid clicks." The smart shelf takes such knowledge-based decision making from the online world and puts it right into our everyday real world.

Verizon wants to eavesdrop on our living room conversations through our TVs and offer advertising based on what we're discussing. The "promise" of using Microsoft's motion recognition technology gets closer daily.

Considering the short attention span the public has -- who's this Edward Snowden guy, again? -- it seems hard to believe there will be any lasting impact from this latest privacy invasion. We've moved from retailers using radio-frequency identification tags to track inventory to them using smartphone apps to keep tabs on customers as they move about their stores. And now we're preparing to use facial recognition software to monitor shoppers and suggest items for purchase, a scene straight out of Minority Report.

Nordstrom abandoned a smartphone tracking project following complaints from customers who didn't like the retailer watching them as they shopped. So perhaps consumers having store shelves incessantly offering an overabundance of snack items will create a similar backlash at grocery stores that implement the technology.

Of course, there's no guarantee that simply because I'm a 50-ish male standing in front of the Oreos display, the shelf will be able to correctly market the product to me. Unless it also offers me a tall glass of cold milk.

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