By John W. Whitehead
“I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it’s the government.”—Woody Allen
Gifts have been bought. Presents wrapped. Now all that remains is the giving and receiving. Oh, and the tracking, of course. Little did you know that all the while you were searching out that perfect gift, you were unknowingly leaving a trail for others—namely, the government and its corporate cohorts—to follow.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, the indifference of the general public to the growing surveillance state, the inability of Congress to protect Americans’ privacy, and the profit-driven policies of the business sector, the corporate state could write a book about your holiday shopping habits: the websites you’ve visited when trying to decide what to buy, the storefronts you’ve browsed while wandering the mall, and the purchases you’ve made.
Even the store mannequins have gotten in on the gig. According to the Washington Post, mannequins in some high-end boutiques are now being outfitted with cameras that utilize facial recognition technology. A small camera embedded in the eye of an otherwise normal looking mannequin allows storekeepers to keep track of the age, gender and race of all their customers. This information is then used to personally tailor the shopping experience to those coming in and out of their stores. As the Washington Post report notes, “a clothier introduced a children’s line after the dummy showed that kids made up more than half its mid-afternoon traffic… Another store found that a third of visitors using one of its doors after 4 p.m. were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff members by that entrance.”
At $5,072 a pop, these EyeSee mannequins come with a steep price tag, but for storeowners who want to know more—a lot more—about their customers, they’re the perfect tool, able to sit innocently at store entrances and windows, leaving shoppers oblivious to their hidden cameras. Italian mannequin maker Almax SpA, manufacturer of the EyeSee mannequins, is currently working on adding ears to the mannequins, allowing them to record people’s comments in order to further tailor the shopping experience.
While this may be the creepiest instance of targeted advertising in recent memory, these surveillance mannequins provide a window into a $100 billion per year data mining industry that gathers vast amounts of information about every facet of consumers’ lives in order to target them with personalized advertisements. Granted, businesses “have been tracking shoppers for years through people counters, security cameras, heat maps and even undercover researchers,” notes journalist Annalyn Censky. Yet the advent of the internet age, with its abundance of personal computers, smartphones and other technological software and gadgets vaunted for their convenience and ease of use, has made corporate snooping that much easier.
It’s astounding the amount of information—from the trivial to the highly personal—about individual consumers being passed around from corporation to corporation, all in an effort to market and corral potential customers. Data mining companies collect this wealth of information and sell it to retailers who use it to gauge your interests and tailor marketing to your perceived desires.
All of the websites you visit collect some amount of information about you, whether it is your name or what other sites you have visited recently. Most of the time, we’re being tracked without knowing it. For example, most websites now include Facebook and Twitter buttons so you can “like” the page you are viewing or “Tweet” about it. Whether or not you click the buttons, however, the companies can still determine which pages you’ve visited and file that information away for later use.
For example, it was recently revealed that the advertising agency Epic Marketing was engaging in “history sniffing” by surreptitiously tracking the Internet browsing habits of unsuspecting people. Epic Marketing was specifically looking for people who had searched for information on “fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief, and personal bankruptcy.” After finding out what information people were looking for, Epic then targeted them with advertisements based upon their surfing history.
As the EyeSee mannequins show, you no longer even have to be in front of your computer to have your consumer data accessed, uploaded, stored and tracked. In August 2012, for example, data mining agency Redpepper began testing a service known as Facedeals in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Facial recognition cameras set at the entrances of businesses snap photos of people walking in, and if you’ve signed up to have a Facedeals account via your Facebook, you receive instant coupons sent to your smartphone. Similarly, a small coffee chain in San Francisco, Philz Coffee, has installed sensors at the front door of their stores in order to capture the Wi-Fi signal of any smartphone within 60 yards. Jacob Jaber, president of Philz Coffee, uses the information gleaned from these sensors to structure his stores according to the in-store behavior of customers.
Of course, these personalized marketing campaigns are just the beginning. Not too far in the future, stores will create our shopping lists for us. Thanks to the ongoing expansion of the Internet of Things—the rapidly developing digital connection between one’s home appliances and digital devices—you may one day soon find your phone telling you that you’ve run out of milk. “A lightbulb could blow at home and automatically add itself to your weekly shop. You wouldn’t need to tell us you need to feed a family of four—we’ll know,” Phil Clarke, the CEO of supermarket Tesco, said. “We’ll even know your budget.”
Not even politicians are immune to the lure of data mining. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, the Romney and Obama campaigns followed voters across the web by installing cookies on their computers and observing the websites they visited in an attempt to gather information on their personal views. CampaignGrid, a Republican affiliated firm, and Precision Network, a Democratic affiliated firm, both worked to collect data on 150 million American Internet users, or 80% of the registered voting population.
In addition, both the Romney and Obama campaigns collected and purchased vast reams of data on potential voters, including “demographic data from companies that study details such as voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.” The Democratic and Republican National Committees spent a combined total of $13 million on data collected by companies such as Acxiom, Experian or Equifax, all of which have been suspected of serious privacy violations. Two companies that have been sued over privacy violations, Rapleaf and Intelius, also sold information to both parties.
Of course, the government has done little to regulate this booming industry and safeguard consumer privacy, leaving corporations to take the lead in determining how this data is collected and used. Not surprisingly, privacy is low on their list of priorities. However, the fact that all of this information can also be data mined by the police and a multitude of government agents through their vast network of fusion centers and information-collecting agencies just adds an Orwellian luster to the overall picture.