These Walgreens Freezers Are Spying on You

Marc Fizer, YouTube
Marc Fizer, YouTube

Shopping in a public place shouldn't carry with it any expectations of privacy. Your shopping card collects data. Your credit card company knows what you're buying. Store cameras make sure you're not shoplifting. But would you expect the freezer to profile you according to your age or gender?

That's coming, and sooner than you think. At a Walgreens location in New York City, Fast Company reporter Katharine Schwab recently examined the possible future of retail customization and had a face-to-screen encounter with a cooler door that makes recommendations based on who happens to be staring into it. Instead of being see-through glass, the doors look more like slot machines—bright and vivid rows of ice cream, food, and beverage options. Using cameras, motion sensors, and eye-tracking, the door's display shifts its focus to target specific demographics.

A woman looking at the cooler might see an ad for Diet Coke, for example, while a man standing in the same spot a few minutes later could be directed to picking up a Coke Zero. Whether consumers see advertising for Red Bull or Gatorade might depend on their age. Time of day matters, too. If it's near dinnertime, maybe the screen will be nudging you toward a frozen pizza. If it's a scorching hot day, you’ll be directed to pints of ice cream.

Owing to the longstanding controversy regarding facial recognition software, the system only makes inferences about your appearance. It cannot take your photo and determine your identity, or that you've been in the store before. Instead, it analyzes your photo looking for facial characteristics and micro-measurements that sometimes correspond with age or gender.

Cooler Screens, the manufacturer behind the technology, has partnered with Walgreens locations to outfit six stores across the country with the displays to assess how consumers react to this kind of targeted promotion in the real world. If and when the practice spreads, questions are likely to follow. Does Cooler Screens store and share this data? (The company says it doesn't.) How deep does its gaze go? Will it recommend junk food to the heavyset and low-calorie options to slim figures? Will it make suggestions based on ethnicity? Will it report shoplifters to management?

For now, the Cooler Screens footprint is small, but there are some heavy hitters behind it. The startup was co-founded by former Argo Tea CEO Arsen Avakian and received financing from Microsoft. With the participating Walgreens locations reporting double-digit sales increases in freezer aisles, it may not be long before Big Freezer is watching you.

[h/t Fast Company]

Why You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

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Scope Out the Best Christmas Light Displays in Your Neighborhood With Nextdoor's Cheer Map

can72/iStock via Getty Images
can72/iStock via Getty Images

For many people, driving around the neighborhood to admire the gorgeous light displays (or laugh at the garish ones) is a beloved holiday tradition. But if you live in a big city or only want to check out the most impressive displays, you might not know where to look. That’s where Nextdoor’s Cheer Map comes in.

Nextdoor is a free and private social network that lets you interact with other people in your neighborhood. It’s used in more than 250,000 neighborhoods around the world, and if yours happens to be one of them, you can use the Cheer Map to find the nearest Christmas light displays in your area. The map is crowdsourced and voluntary, so your neighbors can mark their own homes with a holiday lights icon. And if you're eager to flaunt your own festive decorations, you can mark your home on the map, too.

The results will look something like this:

A woman uses Nextdoor's Cheer Map app
Netxtdoor

You can access the Cheer Map online, or via an iPhone or Android device. To get started, click the Cheer Map link, and you’ll be prompted to create a free online account with Nextdoor if you don’t already have one (signing up is quick and easy). Once you’re logged in, a pop-up window will ask whether you plan on decorating for the holidays; select “I will” or “Not this year,” then click "Continue." If you don’t want to participate, you can also select “Skip” to jump ahead to good stuff and access the map of decorated homes in your neighborhood. And that’s it! If you selected “I will,” a colorful light icon will mark your home on the map.

For those who live in small towns, there’s a chance you’ll be the first person in your neighborhood to join the site. Unfortunately, that means your neighborhood won’t be officially “launched” on Nextdoor unless you get nine of your neighbors to sign up. But even if you aren’t able to use the Cheer Map this holiday season, you could help spread the word (and holiday cheer) to get your neighborhood on the map for next year.

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