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Tesco sparks privacy concerns with face-detection advertising

04 Nov 2013

Tesco has sparked privacy concerns following its decision to install technology that scans shoppers' faces in order to display video advertising on screens at its petrol stations.

This is the first national rollout of the system, known as OptimEyes, which claims to recognise facial characteristics that determine a customer's gender and age in order to show more relevant video adverts on screens as they queue at the till.

Simon Sugar, chief executive of Amscreen, the firm which sells the technology, admitted to The Grocer magazine that the technology has connotations of science fiction, but is looking to increase its reach further. "Yes, it's like something out of Minority Report, but this could change the face of British retail and our plans are to expand the screens into as many supermarkets as possible," he said.

OptimEyes uses facial detection software to display targeted ads to shoppers

OptimEyes makes use of face-detection software to display video advertisements to shoppers

The rollout has provoked anger from some privacy groups, with Big Brother Watch's Nick Pickles telling the Guardian that OptimEyes creates a "huge consent issue".

He continued: "If people were told that every time they walked into a supermarket, or a doctor's surgery or a law firm, that the CCTV camera in the corner is trying to find out who they are, I think that will have a huge impact on what buildings people go into."

The Information Commissioner's Office's (ICO) told V3 that the use of such equipment would have to be clearly marked and explained as a customer enters the premises – as with CCTV systems used for security – with additional explanation as to how their data would be used.

The ICO added: "As with any new technology, we would expect Tesco to be upfront about how people's information is being used. The privacy issues which this software might raise are obvious and so it is in the company's best interests to make sure they are explaining what information is being collected and why.

"We will be making enquiries with Tesco to find out more about the system and how it complies with the Data Protection Act." 

OptimEyes promotional material (below) insists that the technology is merely face "detection" software rather than face "recognition", adding that data about a customer is immediately anonymised and processed as a string of numeric data. 

Google, meanwhile, is thought to be developing similar technology. A recent patent from the firm showed software that could detect the emotions of a user as they look at an advertisement, creating a "pay-per-gaze" ad revenue system.

Advertising of this nature always divides opinion, with the public unnerved with how much information they inadvertently share simply by going about their business. In July, a London startup began fitting anonymous mobile phone-tracking sensors to rubbish bin-mounted screens in order to display advertisements.

However, the City of London Corporation brought an end to proceedings, saying similar projects in future would need to be "done carefully, with the backing of an informed public."

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Michael Passingham

Michael Passingham joined V3 as a reporter in June 2013. Prior to working at V3, Michael spent time at computing magazine PC Pro. Michael covers IT skills, social media, tech startups and also produces V3's video content.

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