Does Anybody Have Privacy Anymore?

Privacy – at least privacy as we once knew it – is a thing of the past. A shadow of its former self, thanks to the fact that, in one way or another, we’re all being shadowed. And technology, of course, is why.

We already know that people can hack into our phones, computers or any type of device and spy on us, using bugs and keyloggers. Phone calls can be tapped and tracked. Computer search histories can be easily searched by online retailers. Cameras are constantly recording our whereabouts. Cell phones have built-in GPS tracking devices. It goes on and on. And it’s becoming more and more what some would call “intrusive.”

Innovators in field, ranging from Homeland Security to legal gaming to retail marketers, keep thinking up new ways to use technology to track our every move as the means to a number of ends, from keeping us safe to studying our buying habits. And technology developers are right there, ready to create and launch the next great product that meets those needs, but eats away at a little bit more of our privacy.

For instance, did you know that in many airports and casinos, and in an increasing number of retail stores today, your face is being scanned within moments of your entry into their space? In most applications of what is known as ‘facial recognition,’ the features on your face are analyzed and then compared to faces in a database. (This is how Facebook automatically tags people in your photos.) If you’re in an airport, they’re likely scanning faces to root out any known terrorists or those on no-fly lists. In casinos, they’re looking for known card counters and cheaters. In these cases, the technology is in use to protect the public, or to protect their profits.

Retailers, however, have found numerous uses for facial recognition. Some are using it for loss prevention, giving small-time shoplifters the option of having their photo taken for the store’s facial recognition data base, instead of being prosecuted. Then, the next time that person comes into the store, they can be closely monitored. But retailers are increasingly using the technology (or variations of it) to track customer buying habits (where they walk first upon entering, for instance) or create a database of their best customers, so they can be proactive in giving them royal treatment the moment they walk in.

But perhaps most interesting is that some retailers are using facial recognition to measure their customers’ emotional response to its products, store, or salespeople. “Emotient” is a new emotion-tracking technology that can track seven primary human emotions: joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and contempt. “We are focusing initially on the retail market to deliver a real-time, aggregate view of customer sentiment — a powerful measure designed to help retailers and brands increase sales,” said Ken Denman, Emotient’s chief executive officer, in a statement published on Retail Innovation’s website.

As one might expect, reaction to this new technology is mixed. While some consumer watchdog groups walked out of an effort by the Department of Commerce to set rules of how the technology should be used, claiming that industry groups refused to set meaningful limits (according to a report on Fortune.com), others point to the more useful aspects of the technology, and grin and bear it. The difference depends a little on a person’s age. Younger people, millennials weaned on technology, protest less about the intrusion of technology than those who are older, some of them saying it leads to a more positive shopping experience. Most customers, however, say they are wary of how the data is used and would like retailers to better inform people about what data is being collected and how it is being used.

The concept of privacy has changed, and will continue to be redefined, with our without our consent – and more and more of our lives will be exposed. As a society, we’re already beginning to figure out how to legislate and protect our “privacy” in this new world… and there is a long way to go.