Consumer surveillance

February 7, 2012

Until recently brick-and-mortar businesses have looked upon on-line operations like Amazon with envy because the latter have something that the traditional business do not–an easy and legal way to track consumer behavior and conduct market research. While many proposals have been put forward, none of them have been entirely effective, appropriate (RFID trackingPayback/Loyalty Systems) or legal (METRO Loyalty card). But recently a new technological approach has been introduced by Prism Skylabs, utilizing the data from security surveillance cameras to track consumer behavior.

On their website they state that:

Prism Skylabs’ goal is to transform the world’s multi-hundred billion-dollar camera network investments into a platform for online-to-offline commerce that creates new revenue streams and new opportunities for businesses to engage customers.

And  Steve Russell, cofounder and CEO of Prism says:

There’s a lot of wonderful information locked up in video, and 40 million security cameras in the U.S. collecting it, but it’s data that’s not been available. We want to free up that information.

With a lot of technical finesse, Prism Skylab’s software compresses the surveillance camera’s raw material and sends it to their cloud servers, where the computing and reprocessing is done. Customers of their product can then view the visualizations, statistics, and other data Prism returns to their PC, smart phone, or tablet.

Unfortunately most articles that can be found on this matter focus either on technological details, expressing awe at the video reprocessing software used to generate usable data from grainy video recordings, or on the prospective investment opportunities this visionary project might hold. The fact this new system would give Prism Skylab a monopoly on off-line consumer behavior data, which still represents more than 90% of total retail sales, remains unmentioned. Yet one might want to consider whether a single corporation should be allowed to gather (and store) all this data and use it as it pleases. 

Moreover, even though the system is allegedly “designed so that it cannot identify or track individuals“, one should keep in mind, that Facebook was not designed to track data about individuals and provide it to US government agencies either, yet upon request that’s exactly what they did. And the involvement of one of Google’s chairmen, Eric Schmidt, in an enterprise like this renders Google’s credo “don’t be evil” even less credible.

It is worth emphasizing that if this system is put in place, the last shred of consumer privacy will have vanished. While it is possible to refrain from shopping online or using a Loyalty card, one cannot refrain from being recorded on camera. So this new proposal raises many ethical questions which so far have gone unnoticed.


Silberer, Stephan: RFID-based Tracking of Shopping behaviour at the Point of Sale – Possibilities and Limitations
Wikipedia: Loyalty Programs Scandal: The RFID Tag Hidden in METRO’s Loyalty Card
Prism Skylabs: Official website
Technology review: Surveillance Video Becomes a Tool for Studying Customers
TechCrunch: Forrester Forecast: Online Retail Sales Will Grow To $250 Billion By 2014
Globalpost: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange says US uses Facebook, Google to spy
Wikipedia: Don’t be evil

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