Please Step Up to the Retinal Scanner

You may remember the scenes in Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks past shops, which scan his eyes and deliver a personalized advertisement ("Stressed out, John Anderton? Need a vacation? Come to Aruba!") Well, according to the Los Angeles Times, we're almost there:

Picture this: You stop in front of a digital advertising display at a mall and suddenly an ad pops up touting makeup, followed by one for shoes and then one for butter pecan ice cream.

It seems to know you're a woman in your late 20s and, in fact, it does. When you looked at the display, it scanned your facial features and tailored its messages to you.

Once the stuff of science fiction and high-tech crime fighting, facial recognition technology has become one of the newest tools in marketing, even though privacy concerns abound.

The Venetian resort, hotel and casino in Las Vegas has started using it on digital displays to tailor suggestions for restaurants, clubs and entertainment to passersby. Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas say they are planning to experiment with it as early as this year to push their products.

Kevin Drum responds:

What's most unnerving about this to me isn't the technology itself, which is inevitable. It's not even the obvious next step beyond just age and gender targeting, which has been common practice forever. It's the fact that I know most people don't even object to this. It's just a better way of making sure that you only see ads for stuff you're interested in, after all. And what's wrong with that? We're busy people, you know.

There are some kinds of privacy violation that people will simply not tolerate, of course (and I think having billboards call out your name will be one). But what will happen as these tools become more sophisticated and more ubiquitous is that every once in a while someone will install a system from which people recoil, then they'll pull that particular thing back, but the general trend toward marketing that is more personalized, and thus more knolwedgeable about each one of us, will continue apace.

The problem is that people who work in marketing are pretty smart. They understand the potential for backlash in these technologies, and they know that as long as they can convince us that we're getting something in exchange, and they make relinquishing our privacy as easy and smooth as possible, we'll assent, with our silence if nothing else. Sure, my phone is recording my every move if I forget to turn off the satellite tracking. But I have a friggin' GPS right on my phone! And have you seen the 3-D building renderings on Google Maps? So cool.

Even if there are people who object and demand that these systems include an opt-out, they'll be only partially successful, and they'll be a small enough portion of the population that it won't matter to the marketers. Recently Andrew Sullivan has been discussing what it's like to try to live without a credit card as a contemporary middle-class American, and the answer turns out to be that it's almost impossible. And of course, the young people of today have grown up with different ideas and patterns of behavior than their elders when it comes to navigating the borders between the private and public. We could see a really meaningful, widespread backlash in 10 or 20 years. But I wouldn't bet on it.