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When it comes to privacy, the march of advancing technology continues to create more questions than answers.

  • Google’s ads are targeted specifically at users, on the basis of the topics they have searched or even mentioned in an e-mail from their G-mail account to a friend.
  • Facial detection software keeps improving, such that companies can recognize demographic cues from people’s appearances. With this information, they attempt to better personalize advertising communications for customers.
  • Digital billboards contain cameras that rely on this facial recognition software to identify passers-by and then display ads based on people’s estimated age, gender, and attention level.
  • The SceneTap application helps barhopping consumers decide which bars to visit, according to the clientele currently patronizing each hotspot. Users can determine if the majority of the crowd consists of women or men—as well as their approximate ages.

The benefits of these applications and advances are clear, especially for marketers. But privacy invasions are easy when technology can identify anyone. Abuses seem even more likely if technology takes the next step of linking personal information to every random pedestrian, including credit scores and social security numbers. On perhaps a less serious but still worrisome level, consumers face the potential for public embarrassment if targeted digital billboards show them ads for acne medication or antidepressants, based solely on their appearance.

On Facebook, facial detection software applied to photographs eliminates the need for users to continue to tag the same people multiple times. It also stores all users’ biometric data. Facebook users can turn off the facial detection function, but their biometric data already has been collected. In Germany, with its strict privacy laws, regulators already have demanded that Facebook stop collecting any biometric data.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is facial detection software?

2. At what point do concerns about privacy outweigh the benefits of technology?

Source: Natasha Singer, “Face Recognition Makes the Leap from Sci-Fi,” The New York Times, November 12, 2011.