Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report takes place in Washington, DC, in the year 2054. It centers around a police officer (Tom Cruise) who is the head of the PreCrime police force, which uses precognitive visions to prevent murders before they take place. When Cruise’s character is predicted to commit murder, he is forced to go on the run and try to clear his name. The film garnered praise not only for its action-packed plot, but also for its uniquely plausible vision of the future of American life. One of the most memorable—and plausible—aspects of the setting was the way retinal scanners were used to track citizens at all times. But the technology wasn’t only for identification purposes; it was also used by electronic billboards in public areas, which would deliver direct advertisements to passersby. In fact, the constant identification forces Cruise’s character to undergo a black market eye replacement so that he can move in public without being called out by name and tipping off the authorities.
Spielberg received praise for Minority Report‘s examination of privacy invasion and the consequences of having personal information used for commercial gains; it was a unique spin on the conventional Orwellian surveillance scenario that was grounded in the established advertising industry’s continual efforts to maximize their advertisement ROI. According to Jeff Boortz, who oversaw the product placement in the film, the billboards would “recognize you—not only recognize you, but recognize your state of mind.”
Last week, tech blogs reported that back in 2011, Google patented a Gaze Tracking System for a head-mounted device that—in 2013—sounds an awful lot like Google Glass. The technology (found here) monitors eye movements to track what a user is looking at, and can even sense emotional responses via pupil dilation. The technology is proposed to have several useful applications, but one of the most prudent for Google is a “pay-per-gaze” advertising feature. According to the patent, the system can potentially charge advertisers based solely on whether a user actually looked at their ad—not just for online advertisements, but also for billboards, newspapers, and other commercials. The idea is similar to the existing pay-per-click model used on Google search results, except it would apply to everything you viewed while walking to work on a Monday morning.
The patent was filed two years ago, but only became public in mid-August, and it sounds remarkably similar to the constant surveillance in Minority Report—where your personal information is most highly valued for its ability to direct efficient advertisements your way. To companies, it’s a dream come true; rather than trying to guess how to appeal to a large demographic, they could target individuals who are far more likely to buy the product. The ratio of advertising cost to return on investment could shrink immensely. There are even benefits for the user, who would only see relevant ads and wouldn’t have to suffer through annoying ones they’d normally ignore. But it’s also not surprising that some have voiced concerns over being constantly tracked like this; it’s enough to give any privacy expert nightmares, and it’s not difficult to envision how the pay-per-gaze system could be used against you. While a set of removable glasses is far less invasive than the retinal scanners in Minority Report, and it’s unlikely that a fugitive on the run would don the specs, it’s still not impossible to imagine a scenario where a private matter is made public by advertisers because of what you’ve looked at recently.
To their credit, Google has anticipated the possible backlash; the patent details options to anonymize data and to opt out of what information is gathered and collected. Furthermore, as Phys.org points out, a patent does not necessarily guarantee a product will be developed. But that said, Google Glass is already in existence, and its use in commercial advertising ventures has yet to be seen. Time will tell if this technology will end up integrated into the glasses, and whether we as a society will be willing to sacrifice a large amount of our privacy for the convenience of personalized advertisements.