Wherever you look these days, something’s looking back at you. There are video cameras on street corners and on car dashboards and on our own front doors.
And so a Chicago company called Cooler Screens figures you won’t mind if they put cameras into the refrigerated display cases in retail stores. The cameras aren’t there to prevent you from stealing soda pop. Instead, they’re part of a facial-profiling system that tries to guess what you’ll buy next, based on how you look.
The doors on a Cooler Screens refrigerator are LCD video screens that display images of the items inside the case, so a customer can see what’s available. The screens also show animated ads, like the ones that pop up on a Web browser. They decide which ads to show by studying video images of the customers.
A camera feeds images of each customer into a computer that guesstimates his or her sex and age. In addition, the system uses an iris tracker to detect exactly where the customer is looking. Do the eyes come to rest on a bottle of Mountain Dew, or does the shopper instead fancy a Diet Snapple?
The Cooler Screens system instantly analyzes all of this data, then starts displaying ads on the cooler door. A middle-age woman might see a suggestion that she pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to go with her Diet Coke; a twentysomething male could be enticed with a discount on frozen pizza.
Cooler Screens did not reply to multiple phone calls and mail messages. But the drugstore titan Walgreens confirmed that it’s testing the company’s coolers in six stores scattered around the United States. Boston didn’t make the cut, and that’s fine with me.
I don’t mind fridges that show ads. A Cambridge company called Aerva already has about 500 video beer coolers installed around the country, in a deal with the brewing giant Anheuser-Busch. Maybe you’ve seen one, with its front door hosting a commercial for Bud Light or a video of a Boston sports team.
Aerva ads are like the commercials on broadcast TV. They’re generic, aimed at everybody in the store. Cooler Screens is making it personal.
It’s a way for brick-and-mortar retailers to engage in the same kind of targeted marketing that’s generating billions of dollars for companies like Facebook and Google. But with Facebook and Google, you make the choice to log on, knowing full well they’re tracking you.
Users don’t log onto Cooler Screens; they just show up. The system looks them over and decides what sort of person they are, and what they might want to buy. It’s clever, but also more than a little creepy.
The Cool Screens website states that the company’s software judges people based on age and sex. Happily, there’s nothing about ethnic or racial profiling. But there’s ample room for other forms of bias. If all you know about someone is age and sex, you’ll probably fall back on some pretty crude stereotypes. Maybe that particular sixtyish-looking woman would rather chug 40 ounces of malt liquor than a pint of iced tea.
For that matter, could the computer even be certain about sex? Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, identifies as non-binary. “What is the machine going to tell me — that I’m a woman or a man?” she mused.
But Crockford is more troubled by the precedent the new system will set.
“I do not want to live in a world where every place I go my face, my voice, my iris, my body — everything about me — is being catalogued,” she said.
Not exactly catalogued. Cooler Screens insists it does not store any of the captured video data. Neither does it use facial-identification software to figure out who you are. But Crockford worries that if consumers tolerate this level of face-scanning, retailers will try to introduce even more intrusive features, sooner or later.
For instance, Target tested a system last summer that compares shoppers’ faces with photographs of known shoplifters.
If you’re a law-abiding citizen, this might not bother you. But if similar systems turn up in every retail store, companies will be tempted to use them for more than security.
For instance, they might teach them to recognize regular customers, track their movements through the store, maybe even install shelf-mounted video displays that would tempt them with special offers.
The retailers would no doubt promise never to abuse this data. But there’s always the risk that it may be stolen by criminals who aren’t as ethical, like the ones who swiped data on half a billion guests of the Marriott hotel chain.
Paranoid? Perhaps. But why take the risk?
We sacrifice much of our privacy to Facebook and Google, but these companies give us a lot in return: excellent Internet search, superb e-mail, and a chance to socialize with friends around the world.
But what do consumers get from letting themselves be eyeballed by a digital icebox? Just an opportunity to look at slightly more appealing ads.
I’ll pass. If Cooler Screens turns up in Boston, I’ll make it a point to buy my soda pop someplace else.