Tesco to install facial scanning technology to target adverts

We are all just about getting used to receiving adverts on our social media pages, based on our previous web browsing history. Some of us find it beneficial, whilst others are annoyed by the intrusion; most are not bothered either way. But how would you feel if you knew that your facial features were being scanned to exactly pinpoint an advert, targeted to your demographic?

You could be walking into a shopping mall and nearby video screens suddenly bring up the latest smartphone offers for the brand you bought recently. Or imagine stepping into a coffee shop and the screens flash up your favourite latte combo? Or how about walking past a dvd store and the last box set that you bought is screening on the displays?

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Whether you find these types of advertising the next step forward, or something out of 1984, it appears that this could soon be a reality as it has been revealed that Tesco is about to install facial recognition cameras at its petrol stations, in order to target advertisements to individual customers at the tills.

The face-scanning technology is being fitted to billboard screens to allow advertising companies to track exactly what sort of people are viewing the adverts. The technology uses a camera that identifies a customer’s gender and approximate age, and then displays an advert appropriate to that demographic.

The company behind the technology being used by Tesco is Amscreen, which is owned by Lord Alan Sugar, and the marketing director Mike Hemmings explains how they work: “It manages to recognise them through a number of traits. These traits can be things that characterise a male or a female or a person of a certain age. For instance if you are a male, it will pick up the cheekbone structure. It correlates it all together and then tells the advertiser and us how many people and what types of people are seeing the advert at any given time and at any given place.”

And Lord Sugar’s son, Simon Sugar, goes on to clarify how the technology will enhance consumers shopping experiences: “It will also enable [subscribers] to go online to our portal to change adverts and to change them in real time, which is quite key. What we are trying to do to is replicate what’s happening online in an offline world,” he added: “But this could change the face of British retail, and our plans are to expand the screens into as many supermarkets as possible.”

As for the Tesco screens, a spokeswoman said that they will be installing the advertising displays in all of their garage forecourts in the UK, and added: “This is not new technology. No data or images are collected or stored and the system does not use eyeball scanners or facial-recognition technology.”

However campaigners for privacy are worried that companies would not make it clear that they were using the new technology. Nick Pickles, from Big Brother Watch, said: “If people were told that every time they walked into a supermarket, or a doctor’s surgery or a law firm, that the CCTV camera in the corner is trying to find out who they are, I think that will have a huge impact on what buildings people go into.”

There are others who are more concerned about the intrusive nature of the technology. Philip James, joint head of technology at Pitmans law firm, said: “The capture of facial signatures represents a potentially much greater infringement of customers’ privacy in the absence of prior consent.”

It is thought that the screens will be able to capture around 5 million customers, using this type of technology.