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A security guard at Al Wahda Mall monitors CCTV cameras. Sammy Dallal / The National
A security guard at Al Wahda Mall monitors CCTV cameras. Sammy Dallal / The National

Big Brother is watching you - online and in the real world

So we know we're being watched online, but how where, when and why is someone watching you in the physical world?

We’re all being tracked online, but being watched in the real world is a different story, says David Mattin

Online, nothing – or, at least, very little – goes unnoticed. Most of us have long known that the internet’s big brands – Google, YouTube, Facebook – don’t let our online activity simply slip through the fingers and tumble into digital oblivion. They collect, analyse and use it. Visit a few camping holiday websites and Facebook will start serving you ads for tents. Zuckerberg is watching you.

Of course, most of us have known for years that our online data is being crunched, bought, sold and used by online giants such as Facebook. Then, in May, we learnt via the whistle-blower Edward Snowden that government surveillance of our online activities is taking place at a level few of us dreamed about: through the PRSIM programme and others, the security services of the US and UK are tracking our emails, telephone calls, Skype calls and more.

OK, so we’re being watched online. But at least there are still limits on the surveillance we’re subjected to in the physical world, right?

Not so much. Those limits are now being pushed back by new forms of real-world observation and analysis of our movements, actions and choices – not by governments but by the brands we buy from.

Last autumn, the high-street clothes and accessories retailer Nordstrom started tracking customer movement around its stores by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones.

Other big chains in the US and UK – including Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mother-care – are conducting similar experiments: using in-store apps, video surveillance and signals from smartphones to gather data on consumer behaviour, including how long customers tend to spend in a particular aisle, typical journeys around the store and how long customers spend examining a product before they buy it.

The stores are using technologies such as those sold by the American company Brickstream, which uses stereoscopic cameras and intelligent software to count shoppers, identify them as adults and children, and track their movements.

The stores plan to use this information to help them redesign their physical spaces: creating a journey around the store that is most likely to result in maximum sales. And to offer shoppers real-time, smartphone accessible vouchers based on their shopping history and in-store behaviours.

So, are you ready for a world in which offline brands, as well as online, are watching you? No one would blame you if you don’t have a clear answer yet. What is clear, though, is that technology is radically redefining our old ideas of public and private and our sense of where our private self stops and our public self begins. And this is just the beginning. Think of the location and behaviour tracking possibilities that will arrive with the next wave of wearable, always-on devices, such as Google Glass. How long before stores know not only where you are, but what you’re looking at?

So far, though, the signs are that while we have made our peace with online surveillance, being watched in the real world is a different story. Nordstrom stopped its experiment in May after customer complaints piled up. What will it take to change our attitude? Deep in the heart of retail land, some very smart people are working hard to answer that question.

David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com


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