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.
"Who are we to argue with Samsung?"
The device can supposedly even track what you're eating and drinking and cater your advertising experience to match -- if you're drinking Pepsi, it'll cue up some Pepsi ads, and if you're drinking Aristocrat straight from the bottle, it will show you a Zoloft commercial.
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.
We'll take our chances with the murder.
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.
At which point it has presumably been programmed to eject you from the store.
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.
"We've got another runner ... can I wing him?"
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.
Except for Chunkys, which will never leave the store.
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.
It can sense what's in your backpack, too.
Websites That Deliver Ads Depending on How Expensive Your Computer Is
Look, there's no polite way to come out and ask customers how much cash they've got. If a smelly shirtless dude starts wandering around the lot of a Mercedes dealership, all they can do is give him the stink eye until he finally leaves. But surely modern technology has given businesses a way around this archaic social convention, right?
Yep! Orbitz (the travel agency website that doesn't employ a swollen old starship captain as its spokesman) has begun using software that determines what type of computer a customer is using to browse its website, and is delivering ads to each customer based on how much that particular computer costs.
"For the last time, I don't want to visit Detroit!"
It started out with Orbitz simply tracking whether customers were using a Mac or a PC, at which point they noticed that Mac users tend to spend more money on hotels than their PC counterparts. Generally speaking, Macs are more expensive, which would suggest that their owners have more to spend (assuming they didn't just vaporize all their extra money buying the Mac in question).
"I'm able to save money on food by being full of myself."
As it happens, Mac users do have more money, earning an annual income approximately 30 percent higher than PC users, and are predominantly single males, a demographic much more likely to spend a few extra dollars on a nice hotel room to attend their bitterly lonely technology convention. Following that line of reasoning, Orbitz now has it set up so that anyone using a Mac to book a vacation on its site will be treated to ads for more expensive hotels.
So in the future, if you're viewing a website from a $2,000 MacBook Pro, you might start seeing ads for jewelers, luxury sedans, and HBO subscriptions, whereas if you're checking CareerConnection from the dusty old Gateway desktop in the public library, you're probably going to see pop-ups for Hamburger Helper and a pawn shop.
"They make Bologna Helper?"
Marketing Firms That Track Your Health Problems
You've probably noticed that if you go to Amazon and search for, say, hair dryers, for days after, every site you go to will be carrying hair dryer ads. If you've never noticed it, or just thought it was coincidence, go try it. It's actually kind of creepy. In fact, at this very moment, you're likely being monitored by over 100 companies, all for the explicit purpose of trying to decide what ads to show you -- that's just a part of everyday life on the Internet at this point. But if you want a preview of what the world will look like when companies start taking it too far, here you go:
Epic, a New York-based marketing firm, was recently caught using ads spread out over approximately 24,000 websites to spy on people's browser history and collect information about potential health problems to more efficiently target their advertisements. As in, if you searched "ruptured anus cures," they would follow you around the Web pelting you with ads for anal sealants. This, despite the fact that under normal circumstances medical records and other health-related information is supposed to be confidential.
"This information was supposed to be between me, my doctor, and my hooker."
And these weren't "Amazing Car Insurance Loophole!" pop-ups on some distant corner of the Internet, either -- Epic sponsored ads on CNN.com, Amazon, Orbitz, and numerous other high-profile sites, and their ads would track visitors after they left to see what (if any) medically related searches they conducted. Epic then stored all this information in a database, organized in categories such as "diabetes" and "incontinence," so that they could target users with advertisements related to their specific medical conditions (although those two keywords would result in the most frighteningly majestic commercial Wilford Brimley has ever appeared in).
You may recognize this as being fantastically illegal, and so did the Federal Trade Commission, who sued Epic and forced them to destroy all the information they'd harvested. By then, Epic was tracking millions of Internet users and attempting to enhance their browsing experience by peppering them with personalized ads helpfully reminding them -- and anyone else who used the computer -- of their debilitating ailments. It could eventually get to the point where the only way to shop privately is to actually drive out to the freaking mall, because you can go into f.y.e. and buy the Rambo collection with absolutely no chance of the clerk following you around for three hours waving Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot in your face.
"This copy has her deleted shower scene."
But the implications are so much bigger than even that -- with enough access to your social media, Google searches, and browsing habits, and a smart enough algorithm behind it, a company could know things about you that you don't even know yourself. They see you starting a diet and immediately know from prior behavior that you'll be back shopping for fat pants six months later. So the future of The Terminator came true, only instead of Skynet murderbots chasing us through the ruins and firing rail guns at us, it's a series of databases stealthily calculating when to ambush us with Mountain Dew ads. It could have been worse, we guess.
You can follow Alaric Penname on Twitter.
For more reasons to be alarmed by some companies, check out 6 Secret Monopolies You Didn't Know Run the World and 6 Companies That Rigged The Game (And Changed the World).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Hilariously Dangerous DIY Projects from Old Magazines.
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