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Trendspotting: face recognition

New technologies that use our data to offer us personalised deals are changing the way we will live our public and private lives ¿ if we still have private lives, that is.
A 3D facial recognition programme is demonstrated during the Biometrics 2004 exhibition and conference in London. Ian Waldie / Getty Images
A 3D facial recognition programme is demonstrated during the Biometrics 2004 exhibition and conference in London. Ian Waldie / Getty Images

The connected world we live in has established a new deal when it comes to our privacy – when it comes to the boundaries of the public and private spaces – and, for the most part, we’re living with it.

Everyone understands, for example, that Facebook is worth billions for one reason: because it is a vast engine for the creation of data about our lifestyles, preferences and relationships, and advertisers are paying to access that data. Every now and then Facebook endures a rough week or two over a change in privacy policy, but people (now one billion of them) keep using it. It turns out that we’re happy to share a lot of information about ourselves online. Especially if it means we get a product or service that we like for free.

Now, the coming together of Big Data and new technologies in face recognition are set to push the privacy argument a step further and into the real, offline world. How would you feel about a world that can identify you, tap data on your likes and dislikes and adjust itself accordingly?

Earlier this year, the US advertising agency Redpepper (www.redpepperland.com) caused controversy when it pointed the ways towards this new world with its Facedeals scheme. Currently in beta testing, Facedeals works by setting up special face-recognition cameras in restaurants and shops. These cameras then see consumers who walk on to the premises, analyse their face and match it, where possible, with a Facebook profile. The consumer can then be offered special deals based on data about their preferences and past behaviour. Walk into a coffee shop and the barista might say: “Oh hi, Jane. I hear you like caramel lattes. How about one half-price?”

Clever, right? The only problem for Redpepper was the coverage online was almost universal in labelling the new idea unappealing, even downright creepy. Which is interesting, when you think about it. There’s no special reason why Facedeals is any more sinister than the kind of data sharing that’s going on all the time when it comes to Facebook and other social media. Join Facebook and there’s a big picture of your face online – and anyone can see it. But initial findings are that while people are OK with that, use a camera to match their real face to their photo and they feel as thought they are being “watched”.

Still, we’re bound to see more of this in the years ahead. The challenge for brands will be to find a way of doing it – or, at least, a way of talking about how they’re doing it – that persuades us that it’s nothing to worry about. Already, the UK has seen a billboard advertisement – by the charity Plan UK – that recognised the gender of passers-by, and displayed one message for women and another for men. Cue predictions – not altogether unwarranted – of a Minority Report future in which advertisements greet us by name.

If these technologies become commonplace, it will mean another shift in the privacy landscape, and in the way we must navigate between our private and public selves. Will we one day inhabit a world in which everyone, and everything, knows who we are, where we have been and what we like? If so, does the very idea of privacy remain meaningful? It’s likely that – in pursuit of ever more satisfying consumer experiences – we’re about to find out.


David Mattin is a senior analyst at www.trendspotting.com

Updated: November 5, 2012 04:00 AM