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Innovation

If cameras at self-checkout make you uncomfortable, how about, oh, this?

Where is the balance between preventing theft and plain old snoopiness?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Security camera on blue background

A little too snoopy? 

Matthias Kulka/Getty Images

The cameras-following-people-about-in-a-store thing didn't seem to go so well for Amazon, did it?

Recently, the company announced it's closing eight more of its Amazon Go stores.

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Should you have never endured the experience, the Go stores used cameras to see what you were buying and then allowed you to automatically check out without having to, well, check out.

These were -- oh yes, I tried it -- spectacularly soulless places, dripping with a late-night emptiness of spirit -- at all times of the day.

Then again, they did highlight what cameras can do for the shopping experience. Or, rather, for the shop owner experience.

Why, Woolworths in Australia is using cameras to snoop on every single thing shoppers scan at self-checkout.

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We can't have you accidentally mistaking an organic banana for its lesser kind, you know?

The company insists it's all for, um, training purposes and, apparently "it helps reduce mis-scans." 

"It's also one of a number of initiatives we've rolled out across our checkouts to make shopping more convenient and seamless," added Woolworths.

There's always something touching when snoopiness is introduced purely to make life more convenient and seamless for you, dear shopper.

But let's not carp. Store owners have to make a living. First, they do it by having fewer human employees and replacing them with self-checkout machines. Then, they do it by installing cameras to prevent theft, because humans, it seems, just can't be trusted.

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Please let me introduce, then, the Fairway supermarket in New York's quite fancy Upper West Side. Its management got terribly annoyed that people were stealing things, so it also fell upon the idea of supervision by camera.

Except these cameras collect biometric information. A sign outside the store is headlined: "Biometric Identifier Information Disclosure."

Doesn't that just put you in the mood to buy some kiwis and plums?

The sign continues in edifying spirit: "This business collects, retains, converts, stores, or shares customers' biometric identifier information, which is information that can be used to identify or help identify you."

"Shares? With whom exactly?" I hear you worry. And wait, what sort of biometric information are we discussing here?

The store helpfully adds: "Examples of identifier information are eye scans and voiceprints."

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Yes, voiceprints. How might it feel for your conversation with your lover about their predilection for Corn Flakes over Coco Pops to be collected, retained, converted (into what? a song?) and shared (with whom? The cereal police? Your ex-spouse?)

Please, I understand it's the future-made flesh. But does the future really have to take a pound of that flesh every time we want a pound of ground beef?

Fairway told ABC7NY that this new technology is "helping our store reduce retail crime." Moreover, Fairway told the New York Times that the real problem is that the city isn't interested in enforcing the law. (Perhaps the city needs more humans to police it? Just wondering.)

And at least there's a sign warning customers, right? Well, the I Love The Upper West Side blog wafted into Fairway and claimed it saw no sign of the sign.

Oh, but it's not just about retail crime, some may fear. Why, the owners of Madison Square Garden used facial recognition to deny entry to lawyers whom they consider adversarial. (And you thought all New York sports fans were, on principle, adversarial.)

But please don't feel bad about this. All these retailers are surely ethical and responsible people. They follow the finest cybersecurity practices. Nothing bad will happen.

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I believe that, of course.

Then again, Amazon is now being sued because it allegedly didn't really alert Go shoppers as to the nature of its cameras' snoopiness.

It's all something of a mess, isn't it? There's always the temptation for a business owner to believe that technology is the cheaper, longer-lasting solution.

But it always brings with it unforeseen consequences -- sometimes because no one cared enough to consider those consequences in as much depth as they could have.

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