Tesco, a retail giant in the UK, is planning to introduce facial-recognition software, known as the “OptimEyes system,” at its gas pumps to determine each user’s approximate age and sex—to customize the ads they see on the pump screen.
In addition to the concerns this raises regarding the appropriateness of essentially using stereotypes to make assumptions about what customers would be interested in, there is also the not-so-small matter of the machine getting an individual’s gender wrong. Such a mistake could be merely exasperating for a cisgendered individual, but a transgendered or gender-variant person might well end up ashamed or humiliated—or even in danger, if the machine “outed” them as they waited to pay.
Tesco was already involved in a controversy around stereotypes earlier in 2013, when a social media campaign was launched to challenge their selling chemistry sets as “boys’ toys.” The retailer responded by reviewing policies around their merchandise’s “target gender.” In September 2013, Toys R Us in the UK announced it would stop labeling toys by gender.
In an editorial for Pink News, freelance diversity consultant Tara Hewitt pointed out, “The idea of gender specific adverts has the potential to further promote the concept of the gender binary, and re-enforcing stereotypes that lead to many of the challenges men and women face in society as a result of the patriarchal status quo.”
Furthermore, “All of this…ignores the fact that customers who don’t fit the system’s pre-defined parameters and embedded stereotypes may well become less engaged in the advertising being shown to them.”
Hewett also took to her Twitter to ask Tesco a few pointed questions; one reply from the company said, “the screen will estimate age and gender, it will be correct the majority of the time.”
However, no comment was made on the potentially larger implacations. As Hewett wrote in her article, “It seems that Tesco have not considered the wider implications of the roll out of this software and the potential impact it could have on transgender customers, particularly the impact of the ‘mistakes’ they admit will take place.”
Though the UK, especially in London, is already under heavy surveillance (in 2011, it was estimated that there is one CCTV camera for every thirty-two people in Britain), the installation of face-scanning software raises serious privacy questions reminiscent of the movie “Minority Report.”
Blogger Paul Bernal pointed out, “The reaction of many people, when reading about this kind of story is ‘this is really creepy.’ They’re right…and we shouldn’t discard our cares about it just because they’re ‘emotional.’ Personally I hope we keep on thinking this sort of thing is creepy—because the time we really need to worry is when we don’t think of it as creepy.”