EPS (justeps) wrote,

Too close for comfort?

San Francisco grocery retailer Foods Co (part of the Kroger family, which also operates Food 4 Less and Ralphs stores in California) started using Evolution Robotics Retail's LaneHawk system for enhanced customer surveillance this week.

LaneHawk places a digital video camera and high-intensity white LED illuminator behind an 8"x12" window in each checkout lane. Using sophisticated visual pattern recognition software originally developed for military applications, store personnel can train the system to look for interesting targets, such as a case of soft drinks mistakenly (or otherwise) left at the bottom of a shopping cart. It's supposed to be able to accurately detect similar items, even if rotated, and 80%-90% obscured. It doesn't need to capture UPC barcodes: if it notices, say, a Coca-Cola logo on something — even a newly-introduced or seasonal product — in packaging it's never seen before — it can figure out that's "close enough" (to stuff it knows about) to be significant. The system can then alert the cashier there's unscanned merchandise, who can then choose to view camera images on the lane's POS display.

A few months ago, Evolution announced they had entered into a partnership with Microsoft, and had switched from a Linux-based solution to Microsoft Windows Server 2003. We all know how well Microsoft products fare against people with Bad Intentions(tm), especially in a networked environment. Oh, I forgot to mention that all the LaneHawk cameras communicate with a "back office server" via Ethernet. What could possibly go wrong?

The manufacturer claims the cameras, which are mounted about ten inches above the ground, "cannot see up skirts," and I'll believe that's true — for adults. Yeah, it's not like anyone would ever take their little kids with them when they go grocery shopping ... and parents would never take their eyes off their children, because they never fidget, nor show any fascination with bright, shiny objects. Riiight.

Imagine what might happen if someone (hypothetically speaking, because this would never happen just down the street from one of San Francisco's most notorious hardcore "adult entertainment" studios ... in the ZIP code with the second highest number of registered sex offenders) were to train the system with a corpus of child pornography. The machines would do all the hard work, dutifully monitoring ten lanes simultaneously, and quietly sending any "naughty bits" to the server room, where who knows where they might end up. Meanwhile, the perv would be rewarded with generous UFCW wages and benefits. Would you like some candy, little girl? We put it at your eye-level for a reason. Jump up and down until mommy buys you some.

Assuming experienced shoplifters are too stupid to defeat the system, it's expected to reduce "shrinkage" enough to cover its cost in about 12-18 months. Of course, honest customers are paying for it right now, as our grocery bills soar even higher.


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