In another case of truth being stranger than fiction, late last year an Italian company called Almax successfully marketed “EyeSee” mannequins, with cameras embedded in their eyes, to five unnamed U.S. retailers. For a tidy sum of about $5,000 a head, EyeSees are now filming U.S. shoppers in dozens of unmarked locations. If you’re wondering, filming individuals without their consent on private property, such as stores, is perfectly legal. Generally, the retailers don’t even have to post a sign saying they’re filming you. When the news of these surveillance mannequins first broke, there were stories linking the EyeSee to “Big Brother”—the oppressive surveillance state of George Orwell’s 1984. Business Week worried that “bionic mannequins are spying on shoppers.” A 60 Minutes story that aired on August 25 (on the inaccuracy of credit reports and facial recognition software) offered the camera-embedded mannequins as one more example of a disturbing trend toward the collection of data about us without our consent. Bloggers continue to warn us.
But really, how big a brother is the EyeSee? Retailers already film you. The next time you go to the store, look into the ceiling corners—and find those little black glass orbs. They’re not hard to spot if you look for them. And it’s not just retailers. Cash-strapped municipalities are discovering that cameras on busy street corners provide more cost-effective surveillance than the neighborhood cop. The next time you’re on a major urban street corner, take a look around and you may notice the black orb on the light post. So why is the EyeSee so much worse than all of those black orbs? Perhaps we are cringing because these mannequins look like us and the black orbs don’t. The camera-embedded mannequins play into sci-fi film images of sinister robots and cyborg terminators. On some primal level, we fear them. Good arguments can be made for and against the surveillance measures and data collection tools that are quietly promulgating around us; legitimate civil liberties arguments still need to get sorted out. But while a $5,000 camera-embedded mannequin may be a curious investment for a retailer, it isn’t all that sinister. // Michael Adelberg