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Big Snacks Are Watching

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Photo:iwantamonkey/Flickr/Creative Commons License. with our own spooky effect


At the turn of the century, a popular debate that took place in bars, coffeehouses and impromptu apartment salons (if you were one of the fancy types) was over the use of surveillance cameras. On one hand, police having video capabilities to help them track down evildoers is a worthwhile reason; at least, if one believes police are incapable of corruption. On the other hand, there's that pesky argument regarding the "invasion of privacy" sliding scale. If police start using cameras on every street corner, what's next?

Will they begin filming us in public bathrooms? In our cars? In our bedrooms?

The debate was derailed in the early oughts by the double-whammy of terrorism (putting enough fear into the mix to overtake most concerns over privacy) and the continual proliferation of the mini-camera on smart phones and personal computers. Cameras are everywhere now. Odds are, if you tilt your eyes slightly up from this piece, you'll be staring into the cold, dark void of a tiny digital camera.

Which is to say: The debate over surveillance is long over. Cameras won. Technology keeping track of your minute to minute, or even second to second, movements are here to stay. This genie isn't going back into its bottle without some kind of technological meltdown. But there's still something incredibly sinister about a new plan to install cameras in grocery aisles.

The project comes from Mondelez International, the corporation behind such ubiquitous snack food brands like Nabisco, Chips Ahoy and Ritz. Their goal is to create the world's first Smart Shelf, an automated grocery shelf that scans the faces of shoppers as they walk past:

The shelf, which is hooked up to Microsoft's Kinect controller, will be able to use basic facial features like bone structure to build a profile of a potential snacker, Mondelez chief information officer Mark Dajani told the Wall Street Journal. While pictures of your actual face won't be stored, aggregate demographic data from thousands of transactions will be.

The company is hoping to install the first batch of Smart Shelves by 2015.

While the invasion of privacy that comes with the new grocery store aisle cameras is something that should give you the willies, an argument can be made (albeit one full of holes) that these cameras aren't anything we're not already used to. They'll be installed in public places, areas where those being filmed have already non-verbally consented by simply walking in. But, for me, the more insidious development is just what the companies will be doing with the information from the cameras:

"Our goal is to understand how shoppers see, scan, spot, show interest and select products from the shelf in the store," said a spokeswoman for Mondelez. "We can also engage and influence the purchase decision by delivering a targeted shopper experience. For example, we can deliver audio or play a video based on demographics, distance and even the time of the day."

In other words, the food corporations (and, more specifically, the advertisement firms they hire) will be handed another weapon to use in their ongoing turf war to influence what a shopper buys. And as we've already seen plenty in the past, food corporations don't exactly have the best interests of consumers in mind when trying to sell them an item.

If this whole Smart Shelf sounds like a device from a futuristic sci-fi movie, it should. The "personalized ads based on face-recognition technology" thing's already been used in "Minority Report," "The Fifth Element," and even on Marty McFly as he hoverboards through Hilldale in the beginning of "Back to the Future Part II." And if we've learned anything from movies that take place in the future, everything that happens when you introduce more technology into society is wonderful and we have nothing whatsoever to be worried about.


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