Just prior to Black Friday, I issued an alert that anyone shopping in either of two American malls -- Promenade Temecula in California, and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. -- would be tracked via their cell phone utilizing FootPathTM technology as they moved from store to store.
Fortunately, that test-run produced enough outrage to force both the UK maker of the technology, Path Intelligence, as well as mall management to halt the surveillance and respond to a call from Sen. Charles Schumer over general privacy concerns, as well as the legality according to U.S. regulations.
However, many retailers seem undeterred by privacy issues and have fully embraced the concept of going even a step further: forming a web comprised of cell phone tracking, surveillance camera footage, and software analysis of shoppers' movements and decisions.
A recent report by Bloomberg comes to a disturbing conclusion in at least one case -- the greater the tracking, the greater the sales.
The concept of studying consumer behavior is certainly nothing new, but it has advanced to nearly predictive behavior capability on the Internet. The virtual world is naturally designed for databases and information analysis. However, there is something just a bit more creepy and dehumanizing about being studied in the physical world similar to mice being put through their paces in a maze. A little cheese here, a little shock there -- and, what do you know; look at 'em run.
I don't believe that's an inaccurate metaphor, as retailers are changing their strategy from data collection through voluntary choice (customer surveys) to the more compulsory covert surveillance and collection that high-tech enables. The result is an eye in the sky looking down upon the maze of shoppers moving through different areas of stimulating bait, while groups of gatekeepers encourage a pre-determined pattern of behavior. The mission is to transform the unpredictable brick-and-mortar world into the pattern recognition landscape of the Web.
Ashley Lutz and Matt Townsend, writing for Bloomberg, sum up the programming:
The goal is to divine which variables affect a purchase, then act with Web-like nimbleness to deploy more salespeople, alter displays, or put out red blouses instead of blue.RetailNEXT is a product of BVI Networks, which is at the heart of the new high tech approach to shopper management. Alexei Agratchev, chief executive officer of consultancy, expressed his distaste for the unknown by saying that "stores have been a black hole" . . . until now. According to their website, the company utilizes "best-in-class video analytics, on-shelf sensors and RFID readers along with data from point-of-sale and other business systems" in order to create an information field to fill that black hole. Agratchev's background is interesting, having formerly been a senior manager at Cisco systems and a consultant for Accenture; a company currently at the center of government funding to implement a biometric database for illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, as well as construction of the Smart Grid.
All along we have repeatedly been reassured that security cameras and other forms of surveillance were strictly to keep businesses and the public safe from criminals, but their ubiquitous presence has morphed into a tool to track and catalog everyone, in both public and private sectors. Once again the promise of more security brings only more enslavement. Furthermore, the tech sector continues to be exposed for having built in backdoors from the very beginning at the behest of government agencies like the FBI, calling into question any concern for the true end user's digital privacy rights.
And, true to form, the RetailNEXT technology of security camera and RFID tracking already seems to have been taken to the next level by security systems' maker 3VR -- they are incorporating facial recognition into the shopping experience. As company CEO, Al Shipp, boasts, "You’ll have the ability someday to measure every metric imaginable. We’re scratching the surface.” The shopping application is an extension of a facial recognition security function that they have been using in Northern California banks where Shipp says, “We can search for a face in any of a bank’s branches in Northern California in the last 30 days … 3VR can do it in about 30 seconds.”
For a look at the extreme ends of where this type of security camera/software integration is being developed, have a look across the pond to Great Britain -- which is, incidentally, where the makers of the Black Friday mall tracking technology are based:
Shopper surveillance has already been embraced heavily in Europe, but so far has been met with at least some resistance in the United States, as the Black Friday mall tests have indicated. Retailers like JCPenny have been hesitant to sign on, as well as Home Depot. However, when companies like Montblanc report a 20% sales increase since they began tracking their shoppers, other stores are bound to overlook privacy issues. If people are so concerned, they might reason, then why do they show up? And this is the lesson we consumers should learn: If we don't want to be viewed as Pavlovian maze dwellers, then let's believe more strongly in our human dignity. If we are ready to give up our privacy so easily, then companies specializing in data mining and behavior management certainly are ready to take it.
To see where all of this is ultimately heading unless we strongly resist and boycott the companies and locations that install these technologies, please view the video below for Recorded Future -- a company whose tag line is "Unlock the Predictive Power of the Web."
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