Privacy vs profit: are retailers tracking your face?

Tracking a customer journey is nothing new in the retail sector. Both online and bricks-and-mortar shops have long been focused on sussing out customer behaviour – monitoring the path they take through the shop (or website) in order to streamline marketing techniques and target the right audience.

However, recent advances in technology have allowed this ‘tracking’ to take on a literal meaning, as retailers start to roll out techniques that include both facial recognition and location recording to monitor their customers’ behaviour.

The implications of this type of monitoring are huge (as well as potentially uncomfortable) for the customer. Gone may be the days of guiltily coveting clothes you can’t afford, as technology will be able advise retailers, via your mobile phone, whether you’re a repeat customer, or if you’ve tried things on more than once. Adverts which are informed by your age and gender then, just might convince you that you need that new dress – after you’ve tried it on.

Accordingly, then, adverts will be programmed to change – tailored to your age or gender – as you walk past them, convincing you that yes, you do need to buy that brand of shaving foam or – as trialled by a British company – switch the brand of take-away coffee that you drink.

Of course, shoppers are bombarded with advertisements when they shop online – particularly since the advent of cookies, with social media platforms subscribing to advertisement, too – and this may be the next logical step for bricks-and-mortar shops, in order to keep up with a competitive market. Certainly, there are positive implications concerning criminal behaviour, as smart CCTV could help to identify both individuals and behavioural patterns, acting as both a deterrent and a tool to help catch shoplifting in the act.

But what does this removal of anonymity mean for customer privacy, and does it fall under the Data Protection Act?

The Information Commissioner’s Office has suggested that it may need to get involved in protecting the privacy of shoppers – particularly as monitoring may take place without direct consent from the customer. The technology works by identifying the MAC address of a smart phone – which can then be linked to a specific individual – and implementing Wi-Fi location tracking, or using intelligent video analytics to analyse customer behaviour. Simon Rice, Technology Manager at the ICO, warns that in using this technology, retailers must consider the ‘significant implications for privacy, data protection and human rights’, as ‘individuals have the right to know who is collecting what data about them and for what purposes’.

Privacy infringement seems to be the biggest concern with these tech developments, and, as such, a series of guidelines have been published by a working group focusing on data protection in communication (viewable here) that encourage data-gathering to be done in a privacy friendly manner. Advice includes providing clear physical and digital signs that location tracking is in place, scrambling MAC addresses so they no longer relate to individuals and focusing on making sure that customer awareness is key – sending notifications to an identified phone or providing a customer with a central opt-out site.

However, as well-intentioned as this advice may be, how can customers really opt out of something if they’re unaware that it is happening? And, by making use of this arguably disproportionate technology, are retailers simply forgoing privacy in favour of profit?

Beth Steer, Creative Content Executive