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Love Data, Hate Data – John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now!

Yesterday, the iconic lights in London’s Piccadilly Circus were switched back on after nine months of renovation. The patchwork, which has become one of London’s most famous sights, has now been replaced by Landsec with a single 4K LED screen with in-built facial recognition technology that will feature six advertisers.

Today, we are closer than ever to the advertising ecosystem that Minority Report predicted in which billboards scanned the retinas of passers-by to show them personalised adverts. According to Landsec’s press report, the digital screen will be able to “react to certain external factors, such as the weather or temperature”. The facial recognition technology could also be used to deduce the age, gender and even mood of passers-by, as well as the make and model of cars; using that info to deliver targeted ads.

How this might work in practice was explained by Tim Bleakley, chief executive of Ocean Outdoor, the company that runs the board’s advertising. “Coca-Cola, for example, can log on at any given moment, see a large group of Spanish tourists and change the copy of the ad from ‘hello,’ to ‘buenos dias’.” Combine this data with all the data users of the billboard’s free WiFi hand over, could result in marketeers being able “to monitor and capture your every online move” warns Douglas Crawford, editor of independent online security and VPN advice service BestVPN.com. Landsec has tried to allay these concerns and has stated that the technology “does not collect or store any personal data and is unable to record images or audio.”

The advances in digital technology has given marketeers the ability to target individual consumers directly. According to an article in The Guardian last year, facial recognition technology is now used by an approximately 59% of UK fashion retailers. This is not set to go away; Apple’s new iPhone X incorporates Face ID technology – allowing you to pay with a smile! Other technologies being used by retailers are beacons. Harrods, for example, has a network of more than 500 beacons which connects to a user’s iPhone through Bluetooth and highlights consumers’ location on a map. This technology can also be used to send consumers location specific deals and recommendations to their phones while they browse in store.

While these tools may be a marketer’s dream, businesses should ensure that they are transparent at the way in which they use such data. There are strict rules in place regarding what businesses can and can’t do with data they have collected from consumers. In May 2018, with the advent of the General Data Protection Regulation, failure to comply could result in fines of up to €20 million or 4 per cent of turnover (whichever is greater).

If anonymised data is being used to change the layout of a store or to provide a consumer with an enriched customer experience, then that is from a legal perspective far less controversial than the use of facial-recognition technology to track an individual and then send unsolicited, personalised marketing materials based on that data.