Comment: Will trans customers be put at risk by Tesco ‘Minority Report’ facial recognition machines?

Tara Hewitt November 5, 2013
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Trans activist Tara Hewitt discusses the potential impact of Tesco’s facial recognition software which is due to be rolled out in petrol stations, on the trans community.

On Monday we saw wide spread reports that Tesco is planning to begin using facial recognition software in petrol stations, to target adverts at customers queuing based on their age and gender.

The idea will result in gender specific adverts being targeted at customers as they queue up to pay for their petrol. As a result, concerns have been raised by people over the appropriateness of assuming a customer will be interested in a product simply because of their sex, and the dangerous potential for transgender customers to be “outed” by a machine as they stand waiting to pay.

The idea of gender specific adverts has the potential to further promote the concept of the gender binary, and re-enforcing stereotypes that lead to many of the challenges men and women face in society as a result of the patriarchal status quo.

Councillor Kerri Prince, a vocal London feminist, commenting earlier on the use of gender targeted adverts highlighted this point:

The obsession with stereotypes and fulfilling gender roles is so damaging in ways we may not be able to see.

Tesco was involved in controversy earlier this year when their practice of selling chemistry sets as “boys toys” prompted a social media campaign challenging their approach, and the supermarket had to launch a review into how they mark the target gender of all their toys. Other retailers have also looked at this issue, with Boots admitting they were wrong to use separate in store signs labelling boys and girls sections.

All of this is without even questioning the wisdom and reliability of the approach itself, and ignores the fact that customers who don’t fit the system’s pre-defined parameters and embedded stereotypes may well become less engaged in the advertising being shown to them.

This use of this software is considerably concerning for members of the transgender community, who face the very real potential of being “outed” at the till, and having feelings of dysphoria triggered by the focused mis-gendering of them by a machine in a very public situation. The wider implications of further emotional distress and upset, taken in the context of self-harm rates of up to 80% within the trans community helps focus the scale of the impact on this one section of society. When trans people are outed in public they also face the very real risk of harassment, and in some cases violence resulting from this taking place. This all has to raise serious concerns regarding the ongoing use of the software

When challenged about these issues Tesco has responded on Twitter to say:

@Tesco@Tara_Hewitt It would not have an effect, the screen will estimate age and gender, it will be correct the majority of the time.”

@Tesco@Blueeyedfoxie No information is kept or stored and the scan will estimate a gender. We recognise there will be mistakes with this.”

It seems that Tesco have not considered the wider implications of the roll out of this software and the potential impact it could have on transgender customers, particularly the impact of the “mistakes” they admit will take place.

All of these issues highlight the need for some serious re-thinking from the top brass at Tesco and that goes without mentioning the serious privacy concerns raised here too, with calls for separate non-scanned queues and no scanning without consent also being put forward today on social media.

The question has to be put: Why do Tesco keep stumbling into the gender stereotype minefield? And will they take people’s privacy concerns and the impact on the trans community seriously?

Until then the choice to be scanned or not to be scanned will involve customers choosing to impose their own personal boycotts on these stores, or face the reality of “something out of Minority Report” (as put by Simon Sugar, CEO of Amscreen, the company responsible for the technology) invading their everyday life.

Tara Hewitt is a Freelance Diversity Consultant , and last month came 43rd in the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List of most Influential LGBT people in the UK.

The views expressed in the piece are her own and not that

Related topics: coming out, gender dysphoria, outed, Tara Hewitt, tesco, Trans, Transgender

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