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4 July 2023

AI-powered advertising targeting shoppers in New Zealand malls

Consumer NZ is concerned by the lack of disclosure around the use of AI-powered digital billboards in New Zealand's shopping malls.

The digital billboards, named SmartScreens, are currently being used in Westfield shopping centres in Auckland and Christchurch. They analyse the biometric data of passersby, and use it to serve up advertisements in real-time, based on their age, gender and even mood.

“We are seriously concerned New Zealanders are unaware they are being filmed and their biometric data analysed, with advertising targeted at them on that basis,” said Jon Duffy, Consumer chief executive.

“People should be told when they’re being targeted with personalised advertising - especially in public places."

Do you know you’re being watched?

The watchdog found that shoppers may not be sufficiently aware of the data being collected about them, and how that data is used.

A Consumer staffer visited Westfield Riccarton. Upon entry they saw a disclaimer that said, “For your safety: areas of this shopping centre may be under video surveillance.”

“Yet safety isn’t the reason the biometric billboards are filming you,“ said Duffy.

“To find out what information is being gathered by the in-mall surveillance, you're referred to either the online privacy policy or a customer service desk inside the mall.

“The presumption that a shopper is going to go online and read, let alone understand, a privacy policy before heading to a public space like a mall is ridiculous. It’s not okay to hide what you’re doing in some far-flung corner of the internet and call that disclosure.

“These companies need to do a better job of informing the public about their data collection and use.

“When people know about the technology and how it is being used, they can exercise the choice to opt-out of being targeted, although expecting consumers to simply avoid public spaces like their local mall isn’t exactly fair.”

The biometric billboards are supported by software provided by Quividi, a French company that measures over 1.5 billion people globally per month.

According to Quividi its technology can accurately estimate individuals’ gender and age using their facial features. The technology can even predict how you’re feeling, such as whether you’re very happy, very unhappy, or somewhere in between.

Your data is big business

Marketers argue that biometric billboards can be useful for consumers - they present them with more relevant ads, but Consumer believes the benefits for retailers far outweigh those for consumers.

“Advances in AI technologies are incredibly valuable for marketers and retailers as they seek to understand and influence consumer behavior.

“The use of this technology is relatively simple and benign right now. However, if its use is normalised, without genuine consent or knowledge on the part of consumers, more invasive and potentially dangerous uses will become easier to implement” said Duffy.

A study by Quividi has shown the use of its screens, and the targeted advertising the screens provide, can lead to a 24% increase in sales.

“There are changes we would like to see that would keep New Zealanders’ biometric data safe, while still enabling businesses to use developing technology responsibly.”

Consumer would like to see better regulation of surveillance technology like biometric billboards, including the following:

  • Clear and prominent disclosure where biometric billboard technology (like Quividi’s technology) is used in public spaces such as train stations, supermarkets, and busy street corners.
  • Restrictions on the use of facial detection technology that assesses people based on sensitive characteristics like gender identity and race.

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