Is privacy dead?

You remember that scene in “Minority Report” when the character played by Tom Cruise is on the lam in a shopping center. The video display read his retinas and called him by name as it served individualized ads. Marketers knew who and where he was. So did the police.

Last year the Japanese rolled out sophisticated vending machines with touch screens and cameras that work in a similar but more generalized way. “When a person stands in front of the screen, a camera captures his image and a sensor determines the person’s gender and approximate age,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Based on that reading, the machine ‘recommends’ drinks that fit the customer’s profile.”

It was only a matter of time before companies in North American began deploying the technology.  This week the Los Angeles Times reported that the Venetian resort, hotel and casino in Las Vegas has started using facial-recognition technology on digital displays to tailor suggestions for restaurants, clubs and entertainment. While the screens can’t identify you by name they can determine your gender and age—the same as the vending machines in Japan. Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas have signed on to experiment with the technology.

A group of bar owners in Chicago has taken the concept to the next level by combining facial recognition with cameras and mobile apps to give potential patrons a read on the ratio of men and women in those places.

“The technology works by digitally measuring the distance between the eyes, the width of the nose, the length of a jawline and other data points,” the Times reports. “Law enforcement agencies that use facial recognition — as was done during the recent London riots — compare the measurements against photos in databases. But for most marketing uses, the measurements are compared to standardized codes that represent features typical of males and females in various age brackets.”

Facebook has deployed similar technology. If you hover your cursor over a photo that you just uploaded Facebook will display the person’s name to you and your friends. (The Los Angeles Times provides an article on how to opt-out of the system.) And while it does not use recognition technology, Google has faced a dust-up in Germany over its deployment of street-level cameras to augment its mapping service.

While the move toward the Big-Brother-is-watching-you dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is gathering attention, it isn’t creating a lot of protest. Both the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have severe reservations about whether such information can be used to identify and track individuals, as in this article by EFF on the FBI’s massive database of personal and biometric information called “Next Generation Identification,” or NGI. And Consumer Reports quotes a study by Carnegie Mellon University that suggests that facial-recognition software can reveal a person’s Social Security number. Yet judging by comments of consumers and lawmakers alike, both groups seem steeped in the naive belief that the technology is as benign as the people who use it.

All of this is done in the name of commerce and convenience but that begs the bigger question — when does this kind of surveillance become an invasion of privacy? Once the province of law enforcement, facial-recognition technology is sweeping into the consumer sector as marketers constantly look for the Holy Grail of advertising — serving messages customized for the individual. That requires the tracking of a consumer’s behavior and location, and the storage and comparison of that data.

Given the recent history of online security breaches and warrantless data searches after 9/11, does this type of marketing violate your privacy? Is the information safe? Are you safe?