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Facial-recognition service tracks shopping habits

 Japanese marketing service uses facial recognition technology to estimate a shopper's gender, age, and visiting frequency. (DigInfo News / YouTube)Window-shoppers beware: a Japanese facial-recognition system that helps retailers target big spenders, and track shoppers' behaviours could soon be popping up at a mall near you.

NeoFace is a face detection engine that estimates the age and gender of customers in a retail environment. It gathers this data, along with dates and times that a customer visits stores, to help companies tailor their marketing strategies.

Created by multinational IT developer NEC, the service has already been rolled out in Japan. But the company is looking to expand the service into North American markets.

A demo video targeted at North American retailers shows how the service can be used to improve sales pitches and in-store displays.

"This service is mainly intended for retailers that have several stores," said company representative Motohiro Iwao in the video, explaining that NeoFace can detect repeat customers across multiple locations. "Retailers can find out how many customers visit their stores at each time of day, and what customers' attributes are."

The service costs about $800 US per month and runs entirely via NEC's cloud computing technology, meaning that potential customers need only a PC and video camera to use the service.

It may sound like a scene from the movie Minority Report, but facial-recognition technology is a growing field.

IBG, a biometrics analysis company, says that the biometrics industry is projected to gross an estimated $6.58 billion this year.  As the technology improves and becomes more affordable, that amount is expected to grow to $9.37 billion by 2014.

In a recent profile of the California-based technology firm "Face First," the LA Times notes that "more than 70% of biometric spending in the U.S. comes from law enforcement, the military and the government."

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, expressed concerns over the technology in a Time magazine piece called "Private Eyes: Are Retailers Watching Our Every Move?"

Dixon tells Time that "there is actually more danger of invasions of privacy occurring in physical retail outlets, mostly because consumers are unaware of the extent to which they are being tracked."

"Legally, stores have the right to put up security cameras, but the consumer expectation of privacy is being circumvented here," Dixon says. "Because when a consumer looks into that camera, they expect it's being used for security, not marketing purposes."

Are you concerned about retailers using facial-recognition technology to track your consumption habits? Or do you welcome deals geared towards you specifically? Let us know your thoughts below.

Tags: POV

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