LIP-READ­ING CCTV soft­ware will soon be used to cap­ture un­sus­pect­ing cus­tomers’ pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions about prod­ucts and ser­vices as they browse in high street stores.

Se­cu­rity ex­perts say the tech­nol­ogy will of­fer com­pa­nies the chance to col­lect more “hon­est” mar­ket re­search but pri­vacy cam­paign­ers have de­scribed the pro­pos­als as “creepy” and “com­pletely ir­re­spon­si­ble”.

The in­tru­sive tech­nol­ogy would be used by high street re­tail­ers to find out what cus­tomers re­ally think of prod­ucts.

Jonathan Rat­cliffe of se­cu­rity firm said: “Vis­ual speech recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy has been in de­vel­op­ment for some time and it’s al­most ready to be un­veiled in the next gen­er­a­tion of CCTV sys­tems.

“This new tech will read lips and give you an idea of the words be­ing spo­ken in the images it cap­tures. While we gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ate this type of func­tion­al­ity with in­ter­pret­ing what con­tentious things were said by play­ers at foot­ball matches, it has far wider-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions, es­pe­cially for busi­ness.”

Rat­cliffe also sug­gested cus­tomers who vol­un­tar­ily com­plete mar­ket re­search sur­veys can be dis­hon­est. He said: “If you’re a busi­ness want­ing to know your vis­i­tors’ opin­ions, a sur­vey re­lies far too much on their hon­esty and ef­fort to fill it in.

“With this leap in CCTV tech­nol­ogy, busi­nesses can an­a­lyse their cus­tomers’ re­ac­tions to a par­tic­u­lar as­pect of their store or ser­vice, and get qual­i­ta­tive as well as quan­ti­ta­tive data. By cap­tur­ing the com­ments of cus­tomers this way, they get an in­sight into unedited and gen­uine in­for­ma­tion that couldn’t be cap­tured any other way.”

Rat­cliffe ad­mit­ted there could be an “up­roar” if stores were to be­gin tri­alling the CCTV soft­ware but in­sisted it can be done. “The tech­nol­ogy is al­ready in use,” he said. “CCTV an­a­lyt­ics are in use for peo­ple-count­ing, you hook the cam­era up to soft­ware which counts the num­ber of peo­ple pass­ing a cer­tain trig­ger area.” Matthew Rice, di­rec­tor of Open Rights Group Scot­land, which works to pre­serve dig­i­tal rights and free­doms, said: “Th­ese pro­pos­als are creepy and in­tru­sive, and ul­ti­mately could dam­age the trust be­tween su­per­mar­kets and their cus­tomers. We do not ex­pect to have our pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions lis­tened in to and recorded when we are shop­ping. If su­per­mar­kets are re­ally look­ing for in­sights into their cus­tomers, then a start would be to re­alise that peo­ple don’t like be­ing spied on. “De­vel­op­ments like th­ese are of par­tic­u­lar con­cern for peo­ple in Scot­land, where un­like Eng­land and Wales there is no Sur­veil­lance Cam­era Com­mis­sioner (SCC) to over­see the use of CCTV and en­sure it meets a code of prac­tice. We would urge the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to cre­ate a sim­i­lar post to pro­tect the pub­lic from po­ten­tial abuses.” Re­nate Sam­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Big Brother Watch, added: “It is com­pletely ir­re­spon­si­ble for any com­pany to pro­mote se­cret lip-read­ing sur­veil­lance as a use­ful tool for stores to find out what their cus­tomers re­ally think. “If mar­ket­ing teams or store man­agers want to know a cus­tomer’s opin­ion about a prod­uct or their shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence they should ask them. Se­cretly lip-read­ing peo­ple’s con­ver­sa­tions with­out their per­mis­sion is a com­plete in­fringe­ment on a per­son’s right to pri­vacy.” How­ever, Rat­cliffe in­sisted it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore stores will have the tech­nol­ogy to lip-read cus­tomers’ con­ver­sa­tions. He said: “Ob­vi­ously, data pro­tec­tion is un­clear if this is al­lowed, so it will take some­one big to trial it and face pos­si­ble back­lash – you can imag­ine the up­roar from a big su­per­mar­ket tri­alling this tech­nol­ogy, for ex­am­ple. I’d ex­pect it to be used in the next few years though, and ex­pect it to be tri­alled in a se­cu­rity role such as at air­ports.” A Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment spokes­woman said: “The pow­ers of the SCC do not ex­tend to Scot­land but CCTV providers in Scot­land are en­cour­aged to fol­low the com­mis­sioner’s guid­ance.”

Pho­to­graph: Colin Mearns

Lip-read­ing soft­ware will have im­pli­ca­tions for shop­pers and firms

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