With Tommy Hilfiger’s ‘smart’ clothing range, data collection has reached dystopian levels

Posted by ap507 at Jul 31, 2018 10:27 AM |
In an article for The Independent, Dr Phoebe Moore discusses how ambassadors will be rewarded for walking past Tommy Jeans stores and how we are becoming a resource for surveillance and profit making
With Tommy Hilfiger’s ‘smart’ clothing range, data collection has reached dystopian levels

Dr Phoebe Moore

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk 

Once, surveillance was undertaken by familiar characters: the police, immigration officials, even spies. The person surveilling knew what they were looking for, and the person being surveilled knew who to avoid and what locations to not frequent. Now, vast quantities of information and data are not simply collected to identify perpetrators or deviants anymore. New groups of people want information about a lot of other people, sometimes not even knowing what the information is for.

New forms of surveillance are the task of an increasing number of actors, from social media developers to data analysts. In fact, machinic systems and inanimate objects are becoming instruments of surveillance. Wireless systems accumulate data about users in cafes, airports and trains. Store cards log information about shoppers’ habits. Some retail store mannequins’ eyes are fitted with cameras with facial recognition software that logs the gender, race and age of customers. These systems have now become so normal that we hardly think about them anymore.

What is of rising interest now is the application of artificial intelligence which makes it possible to interrogate the vast quantities of data now available, in inventive ways. Business is become increasingly interested in doing so, not to identify criminals, but to identify how people behave also in daily life and to find patterns which are beneficial to the bottom line and profit generating activities.

In workplaces such as factories and warehouses, sensory and tracking technologies are used as replacements for the clipboard and noisy foremen. Armbands tell workers what products to pick up and where to take them as well as record toilet breaks and information about mistakes made, where data generated is also being used to make human resource decisions. Amazon recently patented a wristband with haptic feedback directing workers’ hands to the right locations. Truck drivers wear hats that record how tired they are. Construction workers wear tracking devices that can identify dangerous heart rate increases. Delivery drivers’ work locations are tracked with GPS and robots telephone Deliveroo riders to give advice on meeting targets. In office work, movements and tone of voice are being recorded by lanyard worn devices to identify best practice in communication styles for increased productivity and to carry out an intensified practice around people analytics.

In all of these ways, we have become bearers and wearers of surveillance operators, participating in our own location and movement identification in sometimes very intimate ways. The creative levels of intimacy just got more invasive, though. A new frontier of worn tracking is being introduced in our very outerwear. Tommy Hilfiger has just introduced a range of clothing fitted with Bluetooth chips to create a “micro-community of brand ambassadors”. Fashionistas are asked to download the Tommy Jeans Xplore app and turn on the tracking features on their garments. Ambassadors will be rewarded for walking past Tommy Jeans stores. Based on how often they wear these items, they will be eligible for rewards. The company will record precisely how often and in what conditions consumers wear these clothes, presumably to improve their brand and products.

Apart from the fancy title of “ambassador” and an unknown number of concert tickets for unknown bands, what’s actually in it for wearers? Amazon Kindle offers a one-time discount to buyers if they allow the screensaver to show advertisements. But this only requires a one-off payment and functions as an incentive scheme because users have no responsibility to buy any of the products that are marketed to them. Quite differently, Tommy Hilfiger’s scheme harvests revenue generating data from a human ambassador’s body automatically. Similar to Apple’s health data scheme and Strava’s sports tools, corporeal data then becomes a commodity. The tracking features and reward scheme in this new fashion line have endless capacity to benefit the corporation but seemingly limited perks for wearers. Indeed, it could even appear as a bribery scheme rather than a harmless marketing campaign.

Our skin and bones are becoming the final frontier of surveillance where even companies find use of human data generation both in the workplace and now in the fashion sphere. As artificial intelligence breaks new ground for data analysis and miniature machines are used within the fabric and lining of our garments, it is not too fantastical to say that we are becoming a new resource for quite different means of surveillance and profit making.  

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