‘Tesco is to tailor adverts in petrol stations by using face scanning screens’ according to The Grocer magazine. Detractors are already lining up to condemn the idea; likening the retailer’s efforts to something out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and threatening to never darken their doorsteps again. The company’s cause hasn’t been helped much by the MD of Amscreen, the makers of the technology, allegedly saying, “It’s like something out of Minority Report”. The hyperbole is almost guaranteed to cause apoplexy amongst civil liberties campaigners, and is a gift to conspiracy theorists, but is this latest development as sinister as it first seems?
At first glance the technology isn’t nearly as advanced as the facial-recognition tools used with varying degrees of success in many security applications to identify individuals and place them at the scene of a crime. If Tesco’s scanning can only establish age and gender, the data generated is stereo-typical rather than specific, rather like that collected by social media sites. So, maybe the real issue here is not this actual development but the sheer ubiquity of Tesco – its TV advertising already resembles brainwashing – plus the plethora of bigger questions it prompts!
Will legislation governing the disclosure of data captured by face scanning appease public concerns about snooping? Will capturing children’s images be acceptable when the technology migrates from petrol stations – where most customers are adults – to supermarkets? And if so, will all the effort of putting tantrum inducing sweets out of sight have been wasted once kids are stimulated into a frenzy of nagging by checkout adverts aimed right at them?