“We know who you are, where you have been and what you will be doing in the future”. The film ‘Minority Report’ released in 2002, predicted a future where billboards recognised passers-by via facial recognition, called them by name and delivered customer specific advertisements. The media later noted that the film had identified the future potential of many technologies, long before others had recognised the implications of their wide scale application. Indeed, in 2010 the Guardian published an article entitled “Why Minority Report was spot on“.

Targeted advertisements based on web browsing history are creating controversy focused on privacy concerns; search for a product and adverts can appear next to your emails, and on unrelated web pages, for months. However, what if tracking technologies also impact on your offline life? Well, this is no longer a future scenario, but a present reality.

Businesses, like Google, already collect vast amounts of data about us online and target us with individualised adverts. Now the race is on to catch up by tracking our offline lives as well. Adverts in petrol stations, in big stores and in shopping centres are beginning to use facial recognition to tell age and gender, making it easier to see who an advert is reaching and who it should be targeting. For example, in the UK, Tesco supermarket is to launch face scanning technology at petrol stations in order to match advertisements with customers at the till. The screens, manufactured by digital sign company Amscreen, will have an inbuilt camera to identify a customer’s age and gender and will then play targeted advertisements. A Tesco spokesperson said the technology does not use facial recognition software, have eyeball scanners, record data or identify customers in any way – it simply estimates age and gender. The technology, however, is able to adjust adverts depending on the time and date, as well as monitoring customer purchases. These screens are predicted to reach a weekly audience of more than five million adults in the coming year.

Retail loyalty cards were the start of the tracking process, but as the race for data intensifies, individual surveillance is becoming more intensive. Indeed, Simon Sugar, the Chief Executive of the company behind the Tesco scanners, believes that “brands deserve to know not just an estimation of how many eyeballs are viewing their adverts, but who they are too. So, we’re not stopping at age and gender – the long game is about identifying you, and facial recognition technology is getting close to enabling us to do it.” Privacy campaigners say the system puts forward a “huge consent issue”. Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch said: “Scanning customers as they walk through the store without customers ever giving permission for them to be scanned in that way … There’s a huge consent issue there.”

So should we fear these intrusions into our retail experience? The supporters of such systems argue we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide, but consumers may have to be more careful about the shops they visit, whether they seek sensitive medical and legal advice and what streets they walk down.

Citizens may accept a degree of surveillance for law enforcement purposes, but these systems are solely motivated to watch us for the purpose of collecting marketing data. Combined with geolocation software, accelerated by the massive use of smart phones worldwide, the opportunity exists for marketers to use aggregated data to track retail activities at an individual level.

‘The Catalogue’ video produced in 2004 by artist Chris Oakley predicted such corporate intrusion into our everyday lives and explored the power of such surveillance.


Data brokers are now able to identify where we are, what we are buying, and what our wants will be. The potential already exists to extend this data beyond our purchasing habits and lifestyle choices to our very fabric, with predictions of our future health prospects made en masse via analysis of the data from our weekly shop. The question is whether these facial recognition techniques represent a few steps short of a surveillance state by the shop door.

IB style written questions

1.  Identify four uses of geolocation data to improve marketing techniques.

2.  Explain how firms track consumer online activities.

3.  Examine the ethical issues of using technological profiling to market goods and services.

4.  To what extent can firms use personal data and consumer profiles to segment their market, position their products and services and target potential customers?