Do Tesco’s face scanning plans reveal the future of personalisation?

Eye-scanning technology is not the end of privacy, just a good way to sell more chewing gum and soft drinks.

Ruth Mortimer

You can’t get much more targeted advertising than someone using your own face to sell you products. Tesco is apparently planning to do just this, announcing this week that it will use screens at petrol stations that scan queueing shoppers to judge which products to try and sell them.

The OptimEyes system, created by technology firm Amscreen, estimates whether a person is male or female and which age group they fall into. They are then served personalised adverts based on this information as they approach the till (as reported in this outdoor trends article in Marketing Week).

It all sounds wonderfully like the film Minority Report. It’s your face! They are selling you things based on your face! It’s the end of privacy as we know it!

Except it isn’t quite that exciting. After all, these screens are not identifying distinctive individuals. They are simply approximating your age and gender, then advertising to you. In fact, it is less personal as a system than a shop assistant who knows you suggesting some other products you might like. It isn’t selling to you – it’s selling to someone like you.

Just think what is known about you when you go online. By tracking my internet usage today, you can probably tell what I look like, where I work, if I have children, where I shop, what popular culture I choose to consume and where I am at any particular time. Not that all this data is available to every brand, at all times, but it is probably out there.

I’m sceptical that this face-scanning technology will be the start of a massive privacy infringement by retailers everywhere. It may be that in the world of the petrol forecourt, a small nudge by well-targeted advertising can bring huge financial returns so it makes sense for Tesco to roll out.

But will we see face scanning taken further than ads by the till? One article in The Telegraph suggests that Tesco is unlikely to throw its cash behind it without the potential for something more. It said that the combination of the technology “with a gigantic company with falling profits” could lead to a few possible outcomes. And “most of them point towards this being the start of something far bigger.”

Yes, possibly one day a retailer could offer a loyalty scheme that needs no cards and no fingerprint technology. Your face showing up in store could link to your own personal loyalty account, linked to the transactions at the till. This could be added to your known digital data to create a truly personalised experience.

But for now, I don’t think this is the end of privacy and the start of sinister personalisation. At best, it’s a really good way to sell more chewing gum and soft drinks.

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