This clip above is from Steven Spielberg’s MinorityReport, a film released in the summer of 2002. The scene shows TomCruise’s character, Captain John Anderton, walking into a Gapclothing retail store. As soon as he walks in, the store’s systemuses a retinal scan to immediately identify him. The system thenproduces a holographic image that greets him by name and asks if hewas satisfied with his previous purchase.
This scene was included in the film as an example of theelimination of the right-to-privacy in the society of 2054. Just 10years ago, the ability to immediately identify customers as theywalked into a store was considered a terrifying example of what thefuture might hold 50 years down the line.
This technology is available in 2012, and it’s already beingimplemented in stores worldwide. But instead of using retinal scansand holograms, it all runs through the consumer’s mobile device. Asan example, just a few weeks ago, Macy’s announced that theShopkick mobile rewards program would now be active at all 800 ofits stores in the United States. This program sends messages to theconsumer’s phone via the store’s audio system; once the phonereceives the messages, the consumer is given “kicks” (pointsredeemable for various goods and services) as a reward for visitingthe store. To summarize, the merchant-in this case Macy’s-employs asystem that can recognize the presence of the smartphone, identifythe device as belonging to the specific customer, conclude that thecustomer is in their store, and reward the customer based on thatconclusion. The similarity is undeniable.
This is only one example. A number of other solutions usegeofencing or RFID to identify the mobile devices in the store,which can then be linked to the customers who own them. This raisesa number of questions, the most important of which is: why areconsumers voluntarily signing up for programs today which only tenyears ago were used as examples of frightening invasions ofprivacy?
A cynic might point out that today’s real world systems provideconsumers with rewards for opting in, whereas the system in thefilm did not. This would imply that consumers are willing to selltheir privacy for a relatively low price. However there is a muchmore significant difference between the two systems:
Mobile device-based programs provide consumers with control thatthey weren’t provided with the retina scan-based program from thefilm. Smartphone-based programs can be opted into and out of (andeven if they couldn’t, the consumer has the option to shop withouttheir phone), while the retina scan is involuntary and not limitedto pre-selected merchants. A consumer might not care if a fewbusinesses know exactly when they enter and exit their stores, butthe Minority Report system allowed consumers to be kept in constantsurveillance. The film shows people being monitored (forcefully, insome cases) in the streets and in their own homes, not just whenentering stores.
While this scene was intended to convey the total elimination ofprivacy in that society, the issue was not that retinal scansenabled the Gap to keep track of its customers. The issue was thatretinal scans enabled all businesses and government entities tokeep track of all people at all times, with or without theirconsent.