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Creepy surveillance: Mannequins secretly record shoppers and profile behaviors

Nov 26, 20124 mins
Big DataData and Information SecurityMicrosoft

The next time you are window shopping and you see the mannequins, know that Almax EyeSee mannequins may also see you since the life-sized dolls watch you while recording your behavior.

It’s doubtful you ever stop to think about all of the overhead security surveillance cameras in stores, but you are aware it’s there. A new twist on secretly spying on shoppers would put the camera at your eye level because it is hidden in the eye socket of $5,130 Almax mannequins. If you think dolls are a bit creepy, then how about life-sized dolls that can record a shopper’s “age range, gender, race, number of people and time spent” either window shopping or browsing inside the store?

According to the EyeSee brochure [PDF]:

This special camera installed inside the mannequin’s head analyzes the facial features of people passing through the front and provides statistical and contextual information useful to the development of targeted marketing strategies. The embedded software can also provide other data such as the number of people passing in front of a window at certain times of the day.

All this in total respect of privacy, protected by a sophisticated mix of hardware and software technology which processes the data without the aid of a computer and without having to record and transmit sensitive information (images or biometric data), and so without leaving any trace of the face analyzed.

Overhead cameras are allowed for security and even safety, however, according to Christopher Mesnooh, a partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse in Paris, “Watching people solely for commercial gain may break the rules and could be viewed as gathering personal data without consent.”

“The mannequin, which went on sale last December and is now being used in three European countries and the U.S., has led one outlet to adjust its window displays after revealing that men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women,” Almax told Bloomberg. The EyeSee mannequins are already being tweaked; some clients have asked for it to be customized in order to recognize employees “so they don’t muddy the picture of customer behavior.”

Mannequins to secretly watch and listen:

The next generation of Almax mannequins may be outfitted with more than spying eyes, Bloomberg reported, as the company is considering adding ears that would covertly eavesdrop on shoppers. “To give the EyeSee ears as well as eyes, Almax is testing technology that recognizes words to allow retailers to eavesdrop on what shoppers say about the mannequin’s attire.” Max Catanese, CEO of the 40-year-old mannequin maker, said “the company also plans to add screens next to the dummies to prompt customers about products relevant to their profile, much like cookies and pop-up ads on a website.”

Yikes! If these mannequins also get moving limbs and AI, then I think I’ve seen a movie close to that, other than Chucky, and it did not end well.

While it may not make you feel any less creeped-out by the Minority Report-type mannequins, Almax says each one is made of “entirely recyclable and shockproof polystyrene and finished with water-based paints, in full respect of the environment.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.