retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Wired reports that now that the company owning the Toys R Us brand has opened two stores - in New Jersey and Texas - after the company went bankrupt and closed more than 800 stores last year, it is coming under fire for surveillance technology being used in those units.

Here's the context:

"Media reports described how Toys R Us partnered with the startup b8ta to install sensors in the stores‘ ceilings, which track people as they walk around and look at toys … The cameras are powered by technology from RetailNext, a surveillance giant that supplies more than 500 brands and malls in more than 90 countries."

That includes children, the story says, even though "collecting information on kids is a highly sensitive issue, and US law carves out various additional protections or restrictions when it comes to minors—the only major federal law on digital privacy, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, for example, was passed to protect children under 13. Often these rules, including COPPA, require obtaining parents’ permission before collecting data."

Tru Kids, the new parent company of Toys R Us, released a statement claiming that "this data allows Toys R Us to measure and manage the performance of the store, including product placement and staffing. All traffic data is anonymous and the cameras do not register kids.”

The Wired story says that "b8ta helped the company turn its new stores into interactive marketing destinations, where kids can play Nintendo games, shoot Nerf guns, and even attend events at a dedicated in-store theater. All the while, sensors in the ceiling calculate the number of shoppers—shoppers, again, that the technology has determined are over 13—who enter the store and how long they spend with each company’s toys."
KC's View:
Of course, RetailNext undermines that argument by saying that the cameras ignore anyone under four feet tall … Wired points out that the CDC says that the average US ten-year-old can be close to five feet tall.

I think that most people would be surprised exactly how much surveillance takes place in many stores (and malls and airports and other locations where large numbers of people congregate).

Wired writes that "many consumers are likely aware they’re being filmed while shopping, but may assume the footage wouldn’t be used unless they try to shoplift. It’s not clear how aware people are of more sophisticated cameras like the ones RetailNext offers, and disclosure notices inside stores are typically discreet."

I'm not sure I buy that. It all depends on what you mean by "many." I think the vast majority of people are ignorant of exactly how much they're being watched.

The Wired story correctly points out that "over the past two years, digital privacy has become a prominent issue for lawmakers and activists, but most of the discussions have centered on companies like Facebook and Google. Less attention has been paid to physical surveillance for things like ad targeting—even as retailers have adopted the same technology as the tech giants."

That's a great point - maybe privacy advocates ought pay more attention to the physical world.