11/08/2013 03:00 EST | Updated 11/08/2013 03:02 EST

Tesco's Facial Recognition Scanners Raise Privacy Concerns

A major British retail chain is raising concerns among privacy activists after announcing it will start using facial recognition technology to serve up customized ads to shoppers.

The news has immediately raised parallels to the movie Minority Report, in which ads in stores and on public transit address commuters by name after an eye scan.

Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer after Walmart and France’s Carrefour, says its technology won’t be quite that invasive. The facial scanners will identify a person’s gender and age, but won’t identify them by name.

Tesco has locations all over Europe, and owns retail chains in Asia, as well as the Fresh & Easy supermarket chain in the western U.S.

Yes, it’s like something out of Minority Report, but this could change the face of British retail and our plans are to expand the (facial recognition) screens into as many supermarkets as possible,” said Simon Sugar, son of Lord Sugar, the British business magnate whose company is building the facial recognition tech.

For the time being, Tesco plans to put the facial recognition technology in 450 gas stations around Britain. The company estimates it will deliver “engaging and dynamic content” to about 5 million people per week.

Advertising screens shaped like widescreen TVs turned on their side will be installed next to check-out counters. Sensors in the screen scan the faces of customers to determine age and gender, then serve up a tailored ad.

The screens also customize ads based on time of day and volume of customers, and track customers’ purchases, linking them to the demographic data collected.

The whole thing has alarmed privacy campaigners, the Guardian reports.

"Scanning customers as they walk through the store without customers ever giving permission for them to be scanned in that way … there's a huge consent issue there," Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch told the newspaper.

Pickles says customers have to be allowed to consent to the scanning if the technology is to be “ethically deployed,” BBC reports.

Despite the controversy, facial recognition tech for commercial purposes is beginning to take off. Facebook is beginning to use facial recognition technology on its users, and a Finnish startup, Uniqul, is promoting a facial-recognition scanner that can act as a credit card, by identifying shoppers.

For those who want to avoid being recognized by a facial scanners, Japan's National Institute of Informatics may have the solution: They have developed glasses that can block facial recognition tech.

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