Computer Vision Applications vs. Privacy Rights

Jan 12, 2005

Editorial by Stuart Silverman

You can’t argue with the notion that the better you know your customers, the better you’ll be able to serve them.

This was relatively simple when single shop owners made it their business to be part of the fabric of the community and developed intimate understandings of what their shoppers would buy. It is much more difficult in today’s retail chain environments where hundreds of stores are controlled by managers with varying degrees of time, commitment and expertise.

Computer Vision applications used to track shopper traffic patterns and quantify consumer behavior are now being introduced to automate the acquisition of shopper preferences ( And privacy advocates are getting ready to argue that videotaping consumers without their knowledge is an invasion of their privacy.

OK. OK. I understand that people don’t like being watched and photographed. Shoppers are not just concerned about being caught on a bad hair day. They should be rightly concerned about their activities being recorded for use in a variety of activities unrelated to improving the shopping experience.

However, retailers would find great value in knowing that shoppers travel down aisle 3 but not aisle 2; that shoppers stop and look at an end cap promotion but they do not buy; that checkout lines get too long during lunch hour causing shoppers to leave in frustration. And retailers need to know how and why their new prototype stores and layouts work. Retailers can always look at POS movement to see what was bought, but POS rarely provides insight into what is not selling and why. Computer Vision applications are a natural way to extend the merchandiser’s sharp eye across hundreds of stores.

Moderator’s Comment: Is there anything that retailers should be doing in their stores to alleviate concerns about violating privacy rights?

We have grudgingly come to accept security cameras everywhere. Computer vision applications designed to support merchandising and layout decisions are right
around the corner.

Rajeev Sharma, president of Advanced Interfaces, a leading developer of automated human behavior analysis, says, “Computer Vision technologies do not actually
store images or identities of people and so it is not ‘videotaping.’ It is basically converting the raw video into useable data without any human seeing the video.

Stuart Silverman – Moderator

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