I’m not, by nature, paranoid. I don’t worry a lot that cameras are watching, computers tracking, corporations spying and government listening in. My life feels far too mundane to merit that kind of interest, and any information gleaned from my actions would confirm that.
These days, though, I’m on the mistrustful side, and those suspicions began to take root long before Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, exposed the depth and breadth of the U.S. government’s secret phone and Internet surveillance. While the Snowden leak — and the important debate it prompted about what we give up for the sake of security — has focused the public’s fickle attention on spying, it was a magazine story about store mannequins that riled me. Yes, store mannequins.
I know that Facebook uses my “likes” for its advertising purposes and that companies employ Web cookies to track my online habits. But the idea that mannequins are watching creeps me out.
According to the story, these dummies with the impossibly perfect figures are … well, they’re not just modeling the latest styles. More and more of them are equipped with gear that uses facial recognition technology to identify shoppers’ age, race and gender.
This kind of data can be useful. One store, for example, placed Chinese-speaking staff at a particular entrance when it learned that many of the customers using it were Asian.
You might be tempted to dismiss this as just one more way retailers are trying to personalize our shopping experience, but it’s easy to imagine how such information could be put to nefarious purposes.
Any time I discuss the ever-narrowing space in which we are allowed to be truly alone and unobserved, I think of Gladys. If you’re of a certain age, you surely remember Gladys Kravitz and her husband, Abner, on Bewitched. She was Samantha and Darrin Stephens’ nosy neighbor, the one who, while peeking through the curtains of her suburban home, regularly witnessed witchcraft and other shenanigans across the street. She was portrayed as a harmless harebrain whose snooping never amounted to much.
If it only it were still so. In 21st century America, Gladys has been supplanted by spy gizmos that don’t bother with curtains. There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras mounted everywhere you can imagine. The Federal Aviation Administration has approved drones for more than 80 public agencies, including police departments and universities. Google Earth gives us a bird’s eye view of our backyard no matter how tall our hedges. And data mining is a $100 billion industry that feeds companies information to help them seduce us into buying, buying, buying.
In all of this, we are complicit. We’ve traded privacy for convenience.
That drugstore loyalty card on my key ring? It gives the store actionable information about my shopping habits. As does the magnetic strip on my credit card, the bar code on my digital coupons, even the smart electric meter in my yard. And I, like you, have signed on for this.
Maybe I ought to be more paranoid after all.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.