Creeping Fascism, Part 3: They Really Are Watching You

By: John Rubino | Tue, May 28, 2013
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It's becoming easier every day to accept the miraculous as normal: GPS systems that somehow know exactly where you are and give you precise directions in the language of your choice (mine does this in a classy female British accent, though my kids once almost killed us by switching it to Chinese in an unfamiliar city); 4-ounce smart phones that function as full-featured, voice controlled PCs and high-res cameras; game consoles that translate your movements into golf swings or gun shots, and so on. A couple of decades ago (a couple of years ago in some cases) this was the stuff of science fiction. Now it's your 10-year-old's Christmas list. We really are accelerating towards some sort of singularity.

But like all forms of power, the above has its dark side. By illuminating the world for us, it also illuminates us for Big Brother. Consider this from (a rude cousin of the Onion and Saturday Night Live that I just discovered and plan to visit frequently from now on):

The 5 Creepiest Ways Major Companies Are Watching You

The key to selling a product is knowing your customer. Traditionally this has been a hit-and-miss game for advertisers, who are faced with the near-impossible task of convincing people to buy something they didn't even know existed 10 minutes prior.

However, the information age has been steadily providing technology that is allowing corporations to get to know their customers better than their own families. How creepy you find this tends to depend on how old you are, and in fact we're betting that the next generation won't find anything weird about ...

TVs That Feed You Ads Based on What You're Doing on the Sofa

Remember when you could watch your TV without feeling like it was staring right back at you like one of those haunted house paintings with the eyes cut out? Well, it looks like those days are numbered, because a handful of companies are introducing new products that monitor you while you watch -- and we don't mean "monitor" as in "keeping track of what you've been watching" -- that would hardly be new. We mean these devices literally watch you while you are watching television.

Soon everything in your apartment will be disappointed by you.

Verizon has submitted a patent for a new cable box that uses infrared cameras and microphones to keep track of what you're doing while sitting through syndicated blocks of The Big Bang Theory. According to the patent, the box is programmed to watch for specific activities, such as talking, laughing, singing, and playing an instrument, because it was apparently designed to be placed inside Billy Joel's house. It will then show you commercials based on whatever it is you happen to be doing. For example, if you're cuddling up next to your significant other on the couch, Verizon's cable box will take notice and play some commercials for flowers, romantic getaways, Righteous Brothers CDs, and condoms.

We are in no way making this up. The TV is now your wingman.

This isn't even a new idea -- Microsoft filed a patent back in 2010 for a proprietary technology that will scan your emails, text messages, and browsing history, while monitoring your facial expressions and speech via webcam or Kinect (if you have an Xbox) to try and determine your emotional state, delivering ads that they think will appeal to your current mood. For some bizarre reason, the patent specifically outlines a course of advertising suggestions in case the viewer is screaming, which seems to indicate either that Microsoft is trying to tap into the always elusive "murder victim" demographic or that they're anticipating running ads during the Big Bang Theory block we mentioned earlier.

Just in case you felt like your TV wasn't being invasive enough, Intel is producing a similar device that will provide both targeted advertisements and programming based on the information it collects via cameras that are pointed directly at your Hulu-viewing face. That's right -- the Intel box isn't just going to decide what commercials you're going to watch, but also what shows you're going to see, all based on whatever stupid bullshit you happen to be engaged in within its field of vision. "We've noticed you started masturbating to this lesbian scene in Black Swan! Would you like us to loop that scene, or continue on with the plot?"

Mannequins That Watch You While You Shop

Yes, you can take comfort in the knowledge that our children will not have to grow up in this primitive era where mannequins are simply inanimate clothing models and not undercover surveillance androids. Already some stores have begun using the EyeSee Mannequin, a person-shaped plastic clothes hanger outfitted with cameras, microphones, and state-of-the-art facial recognition software meant to record and quantify shopper behavior in an effort to improve sales. It's like getting stalked by one of the replicants from Blade Runner while it completes a questionnaire about the faces you are making in the chambray department.

The mannequins use facial recognition software that can instantly identify a person's age, gender, and race, as well as record how long people spend browsing specific products and even what language they're speaking, so the store knows what types of employees to hire. This software is similar to programs used by law enforcement agencies, particularly in the way that it is unabashedly used to collect racial statistics.

Multiple EyeSee mannequins can be networked together to trace a person's movements throughout a store, literally "following" you around like an aggressive hive-mind furniture salesman, until you feel sufficiently haunted and decide to leave. The information the mannequins record (what items you looked at, what you bought, what you look like, and what you said) is then stored and uploaded to a database, where it will be analyzed to determine the effectiveness of the store's current layout and selection, and then presumably sold to other companies in exchange for a blood oath of fealty to the assistant shift manager. The mannequins are also used to track and apprehend shoplifters, presumably by deploying finger lasers and/or shoulder cannons like traditional humanoid sentry robots.

"If it steals, I can kill it."

Each spy doll costs about $5,000, so it's unlikely that you're going to start seeing them in a Peebles anytime soon. However, facial recognition technology is already being implemented in chain stores like Whole Foods, so it might not be long before you're greeted by some version of the EyeSee synthetic vigilance statues in virtually every place you shop.

Products That Relay Your Location to Advertisers

Nestle's "We Will Find You" campaign was every bit as ominous as the name implies. Step one was to put GPS tracking devices into random candy wrappers. Then, once the device was found and activated, a team of A-Team chocolate bar ninjas would track down the signal in a helicopter to assault the person who'd discovered it with a briefcase full of 10,000 pounds, sort of like if Willy Wonka had sent a Russian kidnapping squad to ambush every child who found a golden ticket.

In an effort to seem like they might have had some notion of what a terrible idea this was, Nestle asked customers to refrain from activating the GPS device if they anticipated being unavailable to be attacked by an airborne terror squad and/or routinely carried a fillet knife they would be likely to reach for in the event of a surprise.

This isn't wholly unexplored territory -- Apple all but forces you into unifying all of your personal information under a single username and password and allowing your various iNonsense to continuously update their servers with your location, but that's Apple, and their products are expensive, high-end gear. Candy bars cost a goddamn dollar. "We Will Find You" was just a one-off promotional campaign, but it really does show you the future: GPS technology is now so cheap to produce that a company like Nestle can stick a tracking chip into a freaking candy wrapper whenever it gets a wild hair up its ass to do so.

So we may be looking at a time when anything and everything you buy is tracked, from a bottle of Vita Coco Water to a pair of jeans and a comic book -- remember, where you were when you purchased a product and where you went with it afterward is extremely valuable information. Companies could use it to determine where to put up posters and billboards, and tracked items could be synched to trigger specific advertisements in nearby televisions and electronic displays to sell you items related to what you have in your pockets. Though we imagine this might negatively impact the sales of both condoms and personal lubricant in equal measure.

The article lists two other privacy invasions: "Marketing Firms That Track Your Health Problems" and "Websites That Deliver Ads Depending on How Expensive Your Computer Is". And no doubt these just scratch the surface, since everything we do creates valuable data for one marketer or another, while surveillance tech keeps getting cheaper.

Obviously this is creepy, but it will become more than creepy when these disparate databases are tied together and mined by Homeland Security. Then Big Brother will literally know where we are and what we're doing 24/7.

Is there a solution that preserves both convenience and privacy in a world of intelligent devices? Future articles in this series will consider some.



John Rubino

Author: John Rubino

John Rubino

John Rubino

John Rubino edits and has authored or co-authored five books, including The Money Bubble: What To Do Before It Pops, Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green Tech Boom, The Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit From It, and How to Profit from the Coming Real Estate Bust. After earning a Finance MBA from New York University, he spent the 1980s on Wall Street, as a currency trader, equity analyst and junk bond analyst. During the 1990s he was a featured columnist with and a frequent contributor to Individual Investor, Online Investor, and Consumers Digest, among many other publications. He now writes for CFA Magazine.

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