With one or two of our clients, a year or two ago, we began to use the word “recognition” to mean a combination of fit-for-purpose identification technology with fit-for-purpose authentication technology. For commercial organisations, customer recognition is a strategic goal and developing a pathway of tactics to get there by exploiting various waystations on the technology roadmap is an immediate need, because recognition is essential for delivering value-added services. In some retail relationships, it is absolutely crucial. Here’s what I mean.

The London Times recounts a true American horror story: Mindy Kaling, writer and actress first on The Office and later on her own show, The Mindy Project, in addition to author of a successful memoir, walked into a Los Angeles boutique. And she was not recognized. This is a worst-case scenario for any Los Angeles boutique owner.

[From Facial Recognition Alerts Stores When A Celeb Walks In | Popular Science]

Embarrassing it may be (don’t worry, I haven’t the slightest idea who she is either), I don’t think it can be correctly labelled as the absolute worst case for any boutique. That happened in Zurich recently, when the pretty much the richest woman in the world walked into a shop to buy pretty much the most expensive handbag in the world and the saleswomen not only blew a substantial commission but…

US talk show host Oprah Winfrey says she was the victim of racism during a recent visit to Switzerland. She said an assistant refused to serve her in an upmarket handbag shop in Zurich. Winfrey, one of the world’s richest women, was apparently told one of the bags was “too expensive” for her.

[From BBC News – Oprah Winfrey ‘was victim of racism’ in Switzerland]

If it was me, I would have bought the shop and fired the assistant, but I suppose real billionaires are more sensitive and caring. One can only imagine the shock and trauma that Ms. Winfrey suffered when she realised that the Swiss shop assistant had absolutely no idea who she was. I’d love to think she said “do you know who I am” only to be told “no”. In our post-modern celebrity-obsessed culture, not being recognised is a fate worse than death, a problem that our emerging identity and authentication infrastructure really ought to be able to tackle.

This lack of recognition is precisely what the VIP-identification technology designed by is supposed to prevent. The U.K.-based company already supplies similar software to security services to help identify terrorists and criminals. The ID technology works by analyzing footage of people’s faces as they walk through a door, taking measurements to create a numerical code known as a “face template,” and checking it against a database.

[From High-End Stores Use Facial Recognition Tools To Spot VIPs : All Tech Considered : NPR]

In the Swiss case, this same software could also be used to stop asylum seekers from entering the shop at all, so I imagine it will be pretty popular over there. (I’ve been invited to give in a talk in Zurich by our good friends at SIX, so I will ask around when I get there.) But is it a good thing over here? I’m looking forward to the first case of this database getting hacked for use in a mafia hit. Imagine the manpower they would save! Instead of staking you out and tailing you, they just put your picture into the shopping mall database and wait for the bell to ring.

This isn’t all about celebrities and mafia hits. We all want to be recognised, in the right context. I want BA to know that I have a Gold Card as soon as I walk in through the door because I expect to get better service. I don’t get upset when I don’t get that kind of service on United. I understand the game. I like getting a free cup of very nice coffee when I go shopping in our local Waitrose because I have a “My Waitrose” card. And there’s nothing sinister about retailers wanting to know who you are so that they can deliver a better service to you. Being recognised can be good.

Recycling bins in the City of London are monitoring the phones of passers-by, so advertisers can target messages at people whom the bins recognize… The bins record a unique identification number, known as a MAC address, for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on. That allows Renew to identify if the person walking by is the same one from yesterday, even her specific route down the street and how fast she is walking.

[From This recycling bin is following you – Quartz]

If I was going to put a bomb in a rubbish bin in order to assassinate a top bankster, just as an example, I would want to be sure that the bomb detonated just as the target was walking past, so this sort of technology would be invaluable and it’s a shame that the City of London spoilsports banned it. But you can see why they were upset. This sort of passive recognition is different, even though it is inevitable. If we’re going to have recognition, then it needs to be secure (you can’t have privacy without security, remember) and it needs to be controlled, preferably in an explicit bargain between the customer and the retailer. I’m happy with my My Waitrose card in Waitrose, but I might be quite unhappy if I discovered that Waitrose were using it to track me elsewhere.

Now, as we discovered through our work on the Technology Strategy Board’s VOME project a couple of years ago, making that kind of bargain explicit is actually rather difficult, since a great many people don’t understand what is being traded off and it was hard work to find mechanisms to explain it to them so that they could make informed choices. (One that we explored was a privacy card game, which was pretty fun actually.) But let’s put that to one side for a moment and assume that we can. Then, within the bounds of Data Protection laws, I think it is possible to envisage a plausible “privacy settlement” that works for the retailers, customers and regulators. That settlement means sharing some personal information, of course. This was always the business school case study around junk mail. Where there were strict privacy controls, people got more junk mail, because the senders couldn’t work out who might or might not be interested in a golfing holiday so they sent the golfing holiday brochures to everyone. As David Cushman told me a few years ago, if you target information accurately enough, it ceases to be junk, or even and advertisement, and becomes part of a conversation and people like engaging in conversations. So people want recognition, and they want to share, but again it must be under their control and as part of a bargain they can understand and give proper consent to.

There’s another general case where recognition is evolving though. I remember seeing an excellent presentation on this last year from our friends at Sense Networks. They are currently collecting some four billion location data points per day from smartphones in order to deliver targeted advertising. They know everything about you—where you live, where you work, where you shop, where you went yesterday—except who you are. We’re all carrying tracking devices that mean we can be individually recognised.

[Verizon’s] new marketing program, Precision Market Insights, collects data information from iOS and Android users, based on geographic location gleaned from apps and sites being accessed. Verizon plans to continue to share that information with potential advertisers. Verizon emphasizes that the program is legal and doesn’t violate any federal wiretapping or other privacy laws because they keep user identities anonymous.

[From Verizon’s ‘Precision Market Insights’ Data Mining Policy Raising Privacy Concerns]

Setting aside the technicalities of how the data is anonymised and whether the technology used is “strong” enough, this sort of “big data” use strikes me as being reasonable. I don’t mind being tracked in that anonymous way, as part of a group, if it leads to better services for me. I don’t always want to be recognised as an individual. But then I’m not a sleb.

By the way, this sort of innovative use of new identification and verification technology is the sort of thing I might ask Mary Portas about at Europe’s Customer Festival in London on 16th-17th September 2013 where we are both in the keynote track. Thanks to the wonderful people at Total Payments, we have a delegate place at this event to award as a prize on this blog. So if you are going to be in Islington on 16th and 17th and fancy coming along to hear about the future of loyalty, omnichannel retailing, big data and payments in the retail world, all you have to do is reply to this post with the name of the “Portas Town” famed for the short queues and excellent customer service associated with the issuing of UK identification documentation and your name will go into a draw that will be made under independent scrutiny on Friday 6th September. Look forward to seeing you there.



  1. If you target ‘information’ enough, you creep the hell out of people. You don’t ‘start a conversation’, you invade their lives with non-human interaction oriented entirely around the goal of manipulating them into parting with money. Honestly Dave, this kind of behaviour is utterly uncivilised, I don’t care how much the so-called economy needs to grow,

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