These Walgreens Freezers Are Spying on You

Marc Fizer, YouTube
Marc Fizer, YouTube

Shopping in a public place shouldn't carry with it any expectations of privacy. Your shopping card collects data. Your credit card company knows what you're buying. Store cameras make sure you're not shoplifting. But would you expect the freezer to profile you according to your age or gender?

That's coming, and sooner than you think. At a Walgreens location in New York City, Fast Company reporter Katharine Schwab recently examined the possible future of retail customization and had a face-to-screen encounter with a cooler door that makes recommendations based on who happens to be staring into it. Instead of being see-through glass, the doors look more like slot machines—bright and vivid rows of ice cream, food, and beverage options. Using cameras, motion sensors, and eye-tracking, the door's display shifts its focus to target specific demographics.

A woman looking at the cooler might see an ad for Diet Coke, for example, while a man standing in the same spot a few minutes later could be directed to picking up a Coke Zero. Whether consumers see advertising for Red Bull or Gatorade might depend on their age. Time of day matters, too. If it's near dinnertime, maybe the screen will be nudging you toward a frozen pizza. If it's a scorching hot day, you’ll be directed to pints of ice cream.

Owing to the longstanding controversy regarding facial recognition software, the system only makes inferences about your appearance. It cannot take your photo and determine your identity, or that you've been in the store before. Instead, it analyzes your photo looking for facial characteristics and micro-measurements that sometimes correspond with age or gender.

Cooler Screens, the manufacturer behind the technology, has partnered with Walgreens locations to outfit six stores across the country with the displays to assess how consumers react to this kind of targeted promotion in the real world. If and when the practice spreads, questions are likely to follow. Does Cooler Screens store and share this data? (The company says it doesn't.) How deep does its gaze go? Will it recommend junk food to the heavyset and low-calorie options to slim figures? Will it make suggestions based on ethnicity? Will it report shoplifters to management?

For now, the Cooler Screens footprint is small, but there are some heavy hitters behind it. The startup was co-founded by former Argo Tea CEO Arsen Avakian and received financing from Microsoft. With the participating Walgreens locations reporting double-digit sales increases in freezer aisles, it may not be long before Big Freezer is watching you.

[h/t Fast Company]

Surprise! Microsoft Admits That People Are Listening In on Your Cortana and Skype Conversations

mabe123/iStock via Getty Images
mabe123/iStock via Getty Images

In a turn of events that, at this point, probably shocks no one, Microsoft has confessed that human contractors have been listening in on some people's private conversations via Skype and Cortana.

Vice first broke the news on the privacy breach earlier this month, after a contractor passed along documents, screenshots, and actual audio files of some conversations. “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” the contractor, whose name was withheld (for obvious reasons), told Motherboard. Unlike Apple’s recent Siri snafu, these conversations didn’t include potential criminal activity, but they did catch intimate exchanges about weight loss, love, and relationship problems.

Also unlike Apple: Microsoft is not suspending its practices. Instead, the tech monolith has updated its privacy policy to clarify that humans might, in fact, be eavesdropping on you.

“We realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job of clarifying that humans sometimes review this content,” a Microsoft representative told Vice. Before, the Skype website had mentioned that your content could be analyzed in order to improve the technology, but it never explicitly stated that humans would be listening to it.

Microsoft only records Skype conversations that use its translation features, in order to “help the translation and speech technology learn and grow,” according to the Skype FAQ section. If you’re not using translation features, your sweet nothings are reportedly as private as you want them to be. The updated FAQ section also now states that “Microsoft employees and vendors” may be transcribing the translated audio, and the procedures are “designed to protect users’ privacy, including taking steps to de-identify data, requiring non-disclosure agreements with vendors and their employees,” and more.

But Cortana’s data gathering isn’t limited to translation. According to its support page, Microsoft can collect your voice data literally any time you “use your voice to say something to Cortana or invoke skills.” If that worries you, we recommend spending some time adjusting the settings on your Microsoft Privacy Dashboard.

[h/t Vice]

Amazon Is Making It Easier for Sellers to Donate Returned or Unsold Items Instead of Trashing Them

ronstik/iStock via Getty Images
ronstik/iStock via Getty Images

After mailing back an unwanted Amazon order or bringing it to a drop-off location, you may assume your return will find its way to a good home. But not every item returned to Amazon is re-listed on the website. Many third-party sellers working through Amazon simply toss returned products in the trash along with any surplus goods they can't sell. That's about to change: As CNBC reports, the retailer will make its new Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) Donations program the default option for independent shops based in the U.S. and the UK.

Starting in September 2019, sellers that have unwanted returns or unsold items sitting in an Amazon warehouse can depend on the company to donate them to a good cause. In the U.S., products that are eligible for donation will be sent to various nonprofits through a charity group called Good360, and in the UK, groups including Newlife, Salvation Army, and Barnardo will distribute the goods.

“We know getting products into the hands of those who need them transforms lives and strengthens local communities,” Alice Shobe, director of Amazon in the Community, said in a statement. “We are delighted to extend this program to sellers who use our fulfillment services.”

Amazon charges independent sellers 50 cents to ship unsold items back to them and just 15 cents to throw them away, meaning that donating or trying to resell returned items wasn't always cost-effective for businesses. Amazon reportedly wasted 293,000 products over a nine-month period in just one French distribution center alone.

The company now aims to incentivize sellers to donate their unsold and returned inventory by making it the cheaper option, according to sellers who spoke to CNBC. As part of this program, Amazon will also manage the logistics and work with charities in an effort to "streamline the donation process for independent sellers."

The Fulfillment by Amazon Donations program will be the default for U.S. and UK sellers starting on September 1, but stores will still have the opportunity to opt out if they wish.

[h/t CNBC]

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