8 Things You Wouldn’t Think Are Spying On You, But Are

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

surveillance-stateThe next time you take a trip to the mall, make sure you give those man­nequins a big smile. The sur­veil­lance industry’s lat­est recruit—joining the ranks of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty, vend­ing machines, Kinect, and a litany of oth­er seem­ing­ly innocu­ous retail products—is store man­nequins. The $245 bil­lion dol­lar lux­u­ry goods indus­try cur­rent­ly avails itself of five com­pa­nies in Europe and the U.S. that use the Eye­See poly­styrene frame man­nequins, whose eyes are equipped with police grade face-recog­ni­tion cameras.

Ital­ian man­nequin mak­er Almax SpA sup­plies these bion­ic odd­i­ties, offer­ing com­pa­nies the holy grail of retail: “per­son­al­iz­ing” their sales offerings.

More than just sur­veil­lance cameras

Most shop­pers think store cam­eras are just used to detect and deter shoplifters, but now some stores are track­ing shop­pers to gath­er infor­ma­tion about tar­get mar­kets, and what prod­ucts shop­pers like and don’t like.

Shop­per­cep­tion is anoth­er high-tech com­pa­ny offer­ing this type of tech­nol­o­gy, and it’s being used at large retail­ers like Wal­mart. This tech­nol­o­gy uses motion-sen­sor cam­eras placed in the eyes of man­nequins. These cam­eras come equipped with facial recog­ni­tion soft­ware and track cus­tomers’ demo­graph­ics, what they pur­chase, and how long it takes con­sumers to buy cer­tain items.

Anoth­er pop­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy uses heat maps that are put on top of secu­ri­ty cam­era images to see what items cus­tomers are drawn to the most. Dif­fer­ent col­ors like orange or red detect inter­est in a prod­uct; this is deter­mined by the length of time the con­sumer has stood in front of and han­dled the product.

Ques­tions of privacy

Although shop­per sur­veil­lance devices hid­den in a mannequin’s eyes are not viewed as a pri­va­cy vio­la­tion by many, some retail­ers are upping the ante and have begun track­ing cus­tomers via infor­ma­tion from their cell phones. Many see this as an inva­sion of privacy.

But retail­ers like Nord­strom, who use WiFi sig­nals from cus­tomers’ cell phones to track shop­ping habits, argue that it is a great way to learn about cus­tomer habits and how they can improve the ser­vices offered in the retail setting.

New pri­va­cy laws and code-of-con­duct agree­ments are gov­ern­ing the use of retail sur­veil­lance prac­tices. These agree­ments are designed to pro­tect cus­tomers, while also allow­ing retail­ers to col­lect data for mar­ket­ing reasons.

Among con­sumers, cell phone track­ing has proven the most trou­ble­some, and many feel this prac­tice should only be con­duct­ed with full dis­clo­sure and per­mis­sion giv­en by the con­sumer. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant because shop­pers don’t know how the track­ing infor­ma­tion is stored, used and sold. With recent dis­clo­sures regard­ing cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment col­lu­sion in data min­ing oper­a­tions, the motives and ethics behind tar­get­ed mar­ket­ing must be reexamined.

The fol­low­ing are also involved in feed­ing the 100 bil­lion dol­lar data min­ing industry:

Stat­ue of Liberty

That’s right, Lady Lib­er­ty, the mono­lith­ic struc­ture that greets our poor, tired, hud­dled mass­es, is part of Big Brother’s sur­veil­lance enter­prise. Actu­al­ly, it has been since 2002, when ear­ly face-recog­ni­tion soft­ware was installed. Since then, the tech­nol­o­gy has evolved and so has the amount of mon­ey infused into the sur­veil­lance indus­try. In 2012, con­trac­tor Total Recall Corp. out­fit­ted our fair lady with Face­VACS-VideoScan soft­ware, which tracks mil­lions of New York­ers’ faces in real-time, pin­point­ing race, gen­der, eth­nic­i­ty, age, and even “client behavior.”

There’s cer­tain­ly a bit of irony in the gov­ern­ment using a larg­er than life sym­bol of lib­er­ty and democ­ra­cy for arguably uncon­sti­tu­tion­al domes­tic sur­veil­lance practices.

Vend­ing Machines

In Tul­sa, a vend­ing machine rob­bery was solved after the crim­i­nals’ faces were cap­tured on a cam­era sit­u­at­ed inside. The cam­eras are owned and installed by the vend­ing machine com­pa­nies them­selves. The pur­pose – besides law enforce­ment – is unknown but is like­ly relat­ed to tar­get mar­ket research.


Every­body knows that Kinect, the motion-sens­ing con­sole fea­tured in mil­lions of fam­i­ly liv­ing rooms, has a cam­era. Of course it does, that’s how it sens­es your move­ments, but what if you found out that not only is Kinect record­ing and stor­ing your activ­i­ty, it may also be record­ing and stor­ing the con­ver­sa­tions you have while you’re play­ing — and even while it’s turned off?

Microsoft offi­cial­ly denies that Kinect records con­ver­sa­tions, but then in the same sen­tence they brag about the device’s abil­i­ty to read your heart­beat and rec­og­nize indi­vid­ual voices!


The com­pa­ny Immer­sive Labs has cre­at­ed soft­ware for dig­i­tal bill­boards that allows them to watch your face and then tai­lor a spe­cif­ic ad based on your facial features.

Jell‑O, Adi­das and Kraft

Jell‑O, Adi­das and Kraft all use facial recog­ni­tion soft­ware in super­mar­kets to help them craft more effec­tive TV com­mer­cials. The creepi­est part of this is the cam­eras are actu­al­ly linked up to Face­book as well, so the com­pa­ny could hypo­thet­i­cal­ly cou­ple their video sur­veil­lance with social media pro­files for an even juici­er data grab.

The Big Bang Theory

As of April 2013, Ver­i­zon had applied to patent a new cable box that uses infrared cam­eras and micro­phones to track the activ­i­ties of view­ers dur­ing blocks of The Big Bang Theory.

The City of Seattle

A new appa­ra­tus that is capa­ble of hi-tech sur­veil­lance (and more) will be installed at many of the major inter­sec­tions in down­town Seat­tle. So what, all cities have sur­veil­lance, right? Well, rumor has it that there is a new tech­nol­o­gy being used here that involves tri­an­gu­lat­ing our cell phones, so that we essen­tial­ly become rogue devices.