Big Brother’s Big Data – So You Thought You Were Safe? Think Again…

spy mannequin

Electronic privacy is a bit of a thorny issue at the moment, what with the whole scandal surrounding former FBI Director David Petraeus still fresh in our minds. So what better time than now to take a look at some of the more ‘sinister’ ways in which the government – or someone else – might be spying on you?

Out Shopping…

One of the creepiest stories I came across recently was that some retailers, who as our regular readers will know are at the forefront of data analysis to spy on consumers, have now resorted to installing cameras inside mannequins (see image above) to better monitor their customer’s buying habits.

Yep, you read that right, shop mannequins are now watching your every move. But even more than that, they’re not merely watching you, you’re actually being studied whilst you’re out and about, rifling through those clothes racks. The mannequins are hooked up to all manner of gizmos like facial recognition software that lets them build up an extensive database of who their customers are — race, gender, age and so on — and what these demographics are buying, looking it, or ignoring.

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The idea is that retailers will be able to use the data they accumulate to come up with better marketing tactics. And so by that hypothesis, the more data they have on you the better, right?

Which is why Almax, the Italian company behind the EyeSee mannequins, is now planning to install microphones inside them as well, so that retailers will be able to listen in to what customers are saying about the products they have on display.

Almax claims that its mannequin spies can bring almost instant benefits to retailers, citing the example of one store that held a sale, only to quickly realize that male customers were spending more than women during the first two days. Consequently, the store management quickly changed its window display, a move that tempted even more men to part with their cash.

We can understand why retailers would do this, but we can’t imagine too many consumers would enjoy being spied upon in this fashion. Which is precisely the reason why Almax refuses to name its customers, and we can assume, why no stores have yet owned up to the practice.

In The Home…

If you don’t find that unsettling then the fact that your TV could also be employed to spy on you in the near future probably won’t move you much either. Earlier this month, it was revealed that Verizon had applied for a patent for a very particular DVR design, one which contains not just a camera but also a variety of other sensors that it can use to build up a complete picture of you, your living room, your family members and friends, even your pets, so that it can bombard you with highly targeted ads.

Verizon’s Spy TV technology goes as far as being able to spot various objects lying around your home, and more importantly, things like logos on packaging so that it can learn what your favorite brands are. It’ll also be able to listen in on you as well, so it will know when you are arguing (and when to advertise marriage counseling) or when you and your partner start ‘getting it on’, which it would take as a cue to flash up an ad for something like contraceptives (or possibly even sex toys, if it happens to have seen any lying around earlier).

Scary stuff, but there’s more. If Verizon gets its way, the DVRs will also be able to ‘talk’ to any gadgets you might have, such as your phone or your iPad. Your device, being the traitor that it is, will willingly give up any information that you haven’t specifically made private, arming Verizon with even more details about you and your personality.

Even Out On The Sidewalk…

So you’re not safe at home, and you’re most definitely not safe whilst out shopping — so where exactly can you go to get away from big brother? Out on the sidewalk perhaps?

Sadly no, at least not if you happen to live in Chicago, Detroit or Pittsburgh, three cities that have recently seen the introduction of so-called “Intellistreets”, or hi-tech streetlights that are so far-fetched that even George Orwell would have scoffed at the idea.

According to Illuminating Concepts, the designers of these next-generation spy systems, Intellistreets have incorporated a digital wireless infrastructure that allows them to be remote controlled by authorities, providing better “energy management, security, data harvesting and digital media.”

Going by this ‘official’ explanation, it’s not immediately apparent what the hell they’re really for, but delving a little deeper, the whole concept seems ‘concerning’ to say the least.

Intellistreets can act as surveillance cameras, security alert systems that deliver public announcements, advertising hubs and, wait for it, listening posts that can monitor and record the conversations of passersby.

“They’ll make us feel not only safer, but happier,” explains Intellistreet’s Ron Harwood.

“Business and government can work together for economic, environmental and social benefits.”

Harwood insists that Intellistreets represent no threat at all, citing the fact that because they are transparent and happy to let the public know what they can do, well, we should just take his word for it. In other words, utter nonsense — why should we trust him, when we can think of no conceivable use for the cameras other than to spy on us anyway?