Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tesco's Facial Recognition Elephant

The new advertising system proposed at the UK supermarket Tesco has generated a very good discussion on privacy.

Whilst the wheels publicly fell off the transparency wagon on twitter when Tesco claimed they could answer certain questions about certain operation aspects, it does raise a number of important questions.

From what little is known, they are using AVA, or "Anonymous Video Advertising".  The concept being it analyses your facial features to determine gender, age, etc.  

The questions start with what happens to the data.  There's two types of data:

  • Visual Data
  • Inferred Data 
Tesco claims that they don't keep the visual facial data, but that fails to assure people how the derived meta-data is being used.  In fact, the focus is so bad on the camera side, the underlying logic of the real threat hasn't really surfaced in general discussion.  Combined with a Tesco Club card, for instance, are they recording that a female in their 40s shops with that card Monday to Friday whilst a mid-40s male shops on that card at weekends?  What else are they inferring?  Is this backed up with other technologies such as mac address scanning of your mobile phone? Given the first half of that is the hardware vendor, you can tell whether that teenage male is flush with cash (has an iPhone) or not (has some old Blackberry or Android device).

It's a slippery slope, and there's no mention of opting in or out.  Maybe Tesco think that you implicitly agree to stereotypical gender discrimination of advertising just through the act of entering their stores?

It can be circumvented though, for time immemorial people have had ways of disguising or obfuscating their face.  The easiest way is just to cover your own face.

It remains to be seen whether the public backlash dies down or Tesco backs down, but for now there is a huge elephant in the room that is clearly not being addressed.