Privacy Law

Is your photo online? Are you on Facebook? If so, retailers can ID you and your shopping profile

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Decades ago, George Orwell wrote a famous novel, 1984, that envisioned a then-future world in which “Big Brother”—a totalitarian government—was watching its citizens through a variety of electronic gadgetry and might at any time bark orders at individuals through a loudspeaker or television screen.

That world doesn’t yet exist, as far as big government is concerned. During the recent Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, it was fingerprints, not facial recognition technology, that identified the suspects, even though their photos were captured on surveillance footage and in videos taken by spectators, 60 Minutes reports.

And there are also laws that protect individual privacy against government surveillance, the CBS news program noted in a Sunday segment. But there is a brave new world of private industry in which cutting-edge technology does exist, largely unregulated, that will permit retailers to scan incoming customers, identify their faces against a database of known images and target them for marketing based on a detailed profile of their interests and buying habits compiled from social networking sites, loyalty cards and Internet purchases.

“Big Brother is no longer big government; Big Brother is big business,” Joseph Atick, who helped develop the technology, tells 60 Minutes.

In Europe, privacy laws require companies to get permission before collecting an individual’s faceprint. However, there is no such law in the United States, the program says. Facebook, Google and Apple all collect user faceprints. And even those who themselves are careful to keep a low profile on the Internet may find that they are part of a facial recognition database, if anyone else has posted a photograph that identifies the individual by name online.

Equipment included in digital billboards and store mannequins can capture an image of a customer’s face without the individual even being aware of it.

At the time Atick was creating such software, 20 years ago, the Internet was not the significant presence that it is today. Soon, just as websites recognize an individual and start targeting personalized advertising onscreen, retailers will be able to put a name to a face and take a similar marketing approach by linking information obtained from the Internet to the real-life person. Even social security numbers will likely be part of the mix.

Some may not find this objectionable, in a world in which cellphones and credit cards already locate customers geographically and a vast array of personal information is compiled online.

However, Atick, ironically, sees a significant issue.

“My identity, my faceprint should be recognized as my property,” he says. “My face is as important as my financial records, as my health records. It’s very private to me.”

See also “It Isn’t Necessarily Big Brother, But Somebody Is Potentially Watching, Virtually All the Time” “Lawyer Documents Her Data Trail, Revealing Corporate Role in Daily Lives” “7 Retailers Settle with FTC, Agree to Stop Spying on Up to 400,000 Computer Rental Customers” “Some Advertisers Say Their Compliance with Computer Browser Do-Not-Track Feature Is Optional”

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