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Eye See You – Will Big Brother Infiltrate the Mannequins at Your Favorite Store?

By Sarah Wilson    1/7/13

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Facial and body recognition systems are found in a variety of avenues – from the Xbox Kinnect to the police across America using facial recognition software developed by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Nowadays, you could see your favorite stores in the future watching your every move – not by using the typical security camera, but by using EyeSee facial recognition cameras hidden inside of mannequins. These devices are meant to keep track of a customer's gender, age, ethnicity and other similar data, but could possibly open a brand-new can of worms in terms of privacy issues, racial profiling, and other concerns.

The EyeSee system is sold by Italian mannequin maker Almax SpA with an objective to "glean data on customers much as online merchants are able to do." To you, the mannequins look the same as they ever did, but inside, there is a camera inserted into one of the eyes that relays information to facial-recognition software (much like the kind police departments use). The camera is placed at the eye-level of shoppers so that it can record information about people who visit a store. For this reason, the mannequins are dubbed "bionic."

While some luxury retailers wish to use the advanced technology to enhance the way they personalize a shopping experience for customers, other shops have a different motive. Fashion outlets situated in European airports already use the EyeSee mannequins to pinpoint criminals and watch over the shoppers in their stores. The scary thing is…you don’t know you're being recorded unless a retailer decides to inform their customers. However, a store announcing their use of such creepy technology seems unlikely since it could repel various legitimate visitors from a store.
 
When the EyeSee mannequins first hit the scene, it was reported that five companies were using "a few dozen" of the mannequins with many more orders coming in. They sell for about 4,000-euro (or $5,130 in American dollars). Luxury retailers jumped at the idea to employ software that allowed them to profile people while keeping the identities anonymous. The 'good guys' want to provide the best shopping experience for customers and offer a better product assortment. The 'good guys' want to better understand the way people like to shop. But, with any good thing – there are always those who use such technology for more malicious intentions.
 
EyeSee mannequins also raise privacy issues, as well as legal and ethical concerns.

U.S. and European Union regulations allow the use of cameras for security purposes, and they must post signs in their stores warning customers that they may be filmed. However, keeping an eye on people for pure commercial gain may cross the line and even, break the rules. Some view the act as gathering personal data without someone giving their consent.

While the mannequins are believed to only be used in Europe, rumor has it that they've already made their way to California – possibly used in shops located on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica for the holiday season. But not all popular stores are falling in line.

For example, Nordstrom doesn't plan on jumping on the bandwagon of mannequins with facial-recognition software. Spokesman Colin Johnson said, "It’s a changing landscape but we’re always going to be sensitive about respecting the customer's boundaries."

To make matters worse, there are plans to give EyeSee mannequins the ability to eavesdrop on what shoppers have to say about the clothing being displayed. Almax is already testing technology that allows the dummies to recognize words. We can only imagine what will occur if the system should experience a glitch at any time. 

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