Now Your Groceries See You, Too

CHICAGO – MAY 25: Coke products are offered for sale at a Walgreens store May 25, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois. Coca-Cola Company today announced it would purchase Glaceau, the makers of vitaminwater, for $4.1 billion in cash. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

 

Walgreens is exploring new tech that turns your purchases, your movements, even your gaze, into data.

Walgreens is piloting a new line of “smart coolers”—fridges equipped with cameras that scan shoppers’ faces and make inferences on their age and gender. On January 14, the company announced its first trial at a store in Chicago in January, and plans to equip stores in New York and San Francisco with the tech.

Demographic information is key to retail shopping. Retailers want to know what people are buying, segmenting shoppers by gender, age, and income (to name a few characteristics) and then targeting them precisely. To that end, these smart coolers are a marvel.

If, for example, Pepsi launched an ad campaign targeting young women, it could use smart-cooler data to see if its campaign was working. These machines can draw all kinds of useful inferences: Maybe young men buy more Sprite if it’s displayed next to Mountain Dew. Maybe older women buy more ice cream on Thursday nights than any other day of the week. The tech also has “iris tracking” capabilities, meaning the company can collect data on which displayed items are the most looked at.

Crucially, the “Cooler Screens” system does not use facial recognition. Shoppers aren’t identified when the fridge cameras scan their face. Instead, the cameras analyze faces to make inferences about shoppers’ age and gender. First, the camera takes their picture, which an AI system will measure and analyze, say, the width of someone’s eyes, the distance between their lips and nose, and other micro measurements. From there, the system can estimate if the person who opened the door is, say, a woman in her early 20s or a male in his late 50s. It’s analysis, not recognition.

The distinction between the two is very important. In Illinois, facial recognition in public is outlawed under BIPA, the Biometric Privacy Act. For two years, Google and Facebook fought class-actions suits filed under the law, after plaintiffs claimed the companies obtained their facial data without their consent. Home-security cams with facial-recognition abilities, such as Nest or Amazon’s Ring, also have those features disabled in the state; even Google’s viral “art selfie” app is banned. The suit against Facebook was dismissed in January, but privacy advocates champion BIPA as a would-be template for a world where facial recognition is federally regulated.

Walgreens’s camera system makes note only of what shoppers picked up and basic information on their age and gender. Last year, a Canadian mall used cameras to track shoppers  and make inferences about which demographics prefer which stores. Shoppers’ identities weren’t collected or stored, but the mall ended the pilot after widespread backlash.

The smart cooler is just one of dozens of tracking technologies emerging in retail. At Amazon Go stores, for example—which do not have cashiers or self-checkout stations—sensors make note of shoppers’ purchases and charge them to their Amazon account; the resulting data are part of the feedback loop the company uses to target ads at customers, making it more money.

Originally published on The Atlantic here.

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Canada lobbies against Trump push for biometric screening for visiting U.S.

trumpbiometricsborder

Canada has launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign against a push by Donald Trump to subject all visitors to the United States to biometric screening – such as finger-printing, retina scans or facial recognition tests – upon both entry and exit.

The U.S. President’s call for the stepped-up use of such technology, meant to monitor whether non-Americans are staying in the country longer than permitted, was issued in last Friday’s executive order on immigration, but has mostly flown under the public radar amid controversy around a ban on travellers from seven predominantly Muslim-majority countries.

Among Canadian officials, however, it has sparked concerns of massive slow-downs in border traffic of both people and goods, particularly at land crossings – prompting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to raise the issue during a phone call this week with John Kelly, the new U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Mr. Goodale’s office confirmed.

That conversation appears to have been the start of an ongoing effort by Ottawa to head off the screening plan during a 100-day period in which Mr. Kelly has been tasked – per the executive order – with “expedit[ing] the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travellers to the United States” and reporting back to the President on his progress.

A senior Canadian official expressed optimism that Canada will be joined in making that case by U.S. jurisdictions that would stand to suffer – ranging from border states whose economies are closely integrated with Canada’s to tourism-reliant states such as Florida.

Such arguments against biometric entry-exit screening have proven persuasive in the past. As implied by the executive order’s wording, the proposal to biometrically register all non-Americans who enter and exit the U.S. is not new. It has in theory been government policy since its inclusion in an immigration bill signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. Its implementation was among the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and Congress has passed several laws mandating it. But neither presidential administrations nor legislators have followed through on it, with appropriations for implementation defeated or removed from legislation when they have intermittently been introduced.

Instead, the U.S. has settled for biometric screening only of some visitors entering the country, primarily at airports and sea ports – and, notably, not at major land crossings with Canada. To the extent it has monitored who is exiting, other than a few biometric pilot projects, it has been through other measures – including an agreement with Canada, struck in 2011, in which the two countries inform each other when visitors return home.

Ottawa appears optimistic that the success of that recent data-sharing will help it make the case that Canadians should be exempted from any new entry-exit measures. But it is also struggling with unpredictability of a new presidential administration that has thus far displayed very different priorities from any previous one.

While Mr. Trump called for exit-entry biometric screening during last year’s campaign, it is not known how strongly he feels about the matter and how much he might try to compel the Republicans’ congressional and Senate majorities to push through related measures. But it has previously been identified as a top priority by Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Senator who is set to be confirmed as Attorney-General, and who is already considered to be one of the most influential members of Mr. Trump’s administration.

Read the complete article on The Globe and Mail web site here.