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EyeSee mannequin silently collects consumer data for overzealous retailers (updated)

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mannequins (wikipedia)
mannequins (wikipedia)

With the luxury goods market sagging under the weight of a sluggish economy, some retailers are turning to more surreptitious and rather controversial means of targeting consumers. As Bloomberg reports, several high-end retailers have begun deploying a new mannequin known as the EyeSee. Produced by Italy-based Almax, the EyeSee looks like any other mannequin you'd find in storefronts and window displays. Embedded within, however, is a camera that captures images of passersby, as well as facial-recognition software capable of identifying a customer's age, gender, and race.

This kind of demographic data presents obvious benefits to retailers, who can use it to cater their product offerings, promotions, and window displays to consumers most likely to make a purchase. One Almax client, for example, launched an entirely new children's clothing line after the EyeSee revealed that kids comprised the majority of its afternoon clientele, while another hired Chinese-speaking staff after gauging the size of its Asian customer base. But the subtlety of such practices has raised concerns among those who worry that the EyeSee may violate consumer privacy. Unlike similar animatronic dummies adopted in Japan, Almax's creation doesn't look notably different from any other static mannequin.

"If you’re walking into a store, where’s the choice?"

Current US and EU regulations allow stores to monitor customers for security reasons, as long as they post signs warning consumers of their surveillance. Collecting data for commercial gain, while common practice on the internet, may present legal confusion when applied to brick-and-mortar outlets. "If you go on Facebook, before you start the registration process, you can see exactly what information they are going to collect and what they’re going to do with it," Christopher Mesnooh, a lawyer at Paris-based Field Fisher Waterhouse, told Bloomberg. "If you’re walking into a store, where’s the choice?"

Thus far, Almax has yet to face a serious legal challenge to the EyeSee, and is currently working on expanding the mannequin to record and analyze audio, as well. CEO Max Catanese insists that the dummy doesn't actually store any images, thereby allowing it for use in any store with a closed-circuit TV license. He also acknowledges that stores could customize the system to make it opt-in, potentially offering store rewards or discounts to those who agree to be filmed.

The EyeSee went on sale in December 2011 for €4,000 ($5,125), and according to Almax, is already being used by at least five companies across Europe and the US. This list reportedly includes some big-name fashion brands, though Catanese declined to name specific companies, citing client confidentiality. Only Benetton has confirmed the use of the EyeSee in some of its stores, but the company did not offer an explanation for the move, nor did it specify which stores have been outfitted with the mannequin.

Update: A Benetton spokesperson tells The Verge that it does not employ EyeSee technology at its stores, as previously reported. "Benetton Group does not employ any mannequins – or, for that matter, anything else – with the technology described in various media reports that circulated in the last days," the company said in a statement.