From the editor

Somebody's watching me

March 23, 2010
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Most consumers are aware that video cameras are stationed in stores to prevent and track theft. And, largely, they’re OK with that. 

But I wonder whether they’ll feel the same when they read this New York Times article and begin to realize that the cameras, along with new technologies like facial recognition software that have cropped up in recent years, are being used to analyze their behavior and expressions as they enter stores, navigate the aisles and make product selections.

Privacy advocates are already sounding the alarm, saying such technology can be used to identify and track specific individuals and gather more information about them. "I think it is absolutely inevitable," says Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), an advocacy group. There’s also the argument that shoppers who are aware they are being monitored will act differently, and the research findings won’t necessarily hold up. 

Despite the concerns, the Times reports that companies supplying these shopper marketing services are enjoying stellar business. But is there a risk in such intimate observations in a climate where consumers are increasingly more sensitive about being "marketed to" and more demanding of transparency? Or will shoppers simply accept these techniques as part of 21st century life?

Until you’re clear on how much your shoppers value their privacy, and how far you can take your observations and data collection, it’s best to proceed carefully, with great sensitivity and caution (better disclosure is just one of the recommendations in a report from the World Privacy Forum). Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating the very shoppers you’re trying to understand.

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