A familiar face: Snapchat's patent suggests path for retail

With CRM, merchants try to understand shoppers as much as possible. In today's social-media-oriented world, that goes far beyond a list of products purchased and website pages visited.

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With CRM, merchants try to understand shoppers as much as possible. In today's social-media-oriented world, that goes far beyond a list of products purchased and website pages visited.

Snapchat this month was issued a patent on a way to identify a specific face amid a sea of billions of social media images. The official intent of the patent is privacy, as hard as it might be to imagine that Snapchat is truly interested in protecting anyone's privacy. The privacy idea is that identified faces could be blurred or otherwise obscured if that person's privacy settings indicated that desire. But does this face-identifying approach hold much greater promise used as a CRM, rather than a privacy, tool?

Let's start with Snapchat's patent. It starts with confirmed images of its customers and then factors in various privacy settings. It then uses facial recognition to search for that face among the scores of images people post to Snapchat. If it finds a match, it blurs the face, which Snapchat dubbed "a privacy protected version of the image, wherein the privacy protected version of the image has an altered image feature."

Even Snapchat's -atent envisions non-privacy uses of this facial-recognition tactic — I know that you're stunned. "The facial recognition operation may be used to add content, such as a sticker, text or an advertisement, which do not necessarily protect privacy or hide identity, but do provide an enhanced image," the patent said.

Somehow, I never thought of an advertisement on top of my face being "an enhanced image," but I suppose anything that obscures my face is a step in the right direction.

Here's the retail twist. What we have here is the ability to have systems scour the social media universe and match specific faces. What if a retailer instructed its software to use this capability to find images of its customers through social media and to then match those with any other place those faces appear? That would allow a retailer to learn quite a bit about a customer.

For that matter, why limit this to customers? Why not prospects? Why not any face that wanders into your store? Store security camera constantly look at store visitors and can scan their faces. That's been used to look for known shoplifters and others who have been banned from visiting those stores. Why not use it to identify and later contact those people? The system can even note what products those shoppers were looking at.

Some POS systems have toyed with shoppers authenticating themselves by taking selfies. That technique used here would also add significantly to this database.

There's also no reason this system needs to limited to in-store. Once a shopper/prospect is identified, their web visits can be added to their profiles.

This technique, though, requires retail discipline. Merchants can use this to display relevant content and more targeted content, but shoppers can never be directly confronted with the fact that merchant systems have this information.

Does this violate the intent of privacy? One could argue that posting items on publicly-available social sites could be surrendering a healthy amount of privacy. Do with this idea what you will, but this capability will soon enough be used routinely.

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