In a scene in the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” set in 2054, Tom Cruise’s character walks through a subway station lined with camera lenses and talking digital billboards. “John Anderton!” one of them calls out to him. “You could use a Guinness right about now.”
Such a setup will be technologically feasible much sooner than 2054. Already, digital billboards and signs scan faces to gather demographic information for marketing purposes. A wide array of companies, from Adidas to Whole Foods, has rolled out systems that predict gender and age and then deliver targeted ads. Intel says its AIM (Audience Impression Metrics) suite of software, which powers the Adidas and Whole Foods systems, can predict gender with 94 percent accuracy and age range with 90 percent accuracy.
In 2009, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) started out with webcam images of people on campus and off-the-shelf facial recognition software. Using publicly available Facebook photos, they were able to match a third of the people in those images with their Facebook profiles, revealing personal information including names, dates of birth, workplaces, schools, friends, sexual orientation and interests. Then they took it a step further: Using that information, the researchers were able to use an algorithm to predict the first five digits of the person’s social security number with 27 percent accuracy.
The FTC’s enforcement powers under Section 5 of the FTC Act allows it to bring complaints alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices against organizations that sign on to industry codes of conduct and don’t abide by them. But companies that don’t agree to such codes would effectively face no regulatory or legal risk.
“Most likely, what you would expect the FTC to say is what they’re saying about the online advertising industry: For now, self-regulation is working, but we encourage you to create some industry codes of conduct that you follow and enforce,” Hoffman says.