Big Brother is watching you

Amazon-Go’s autonomous grocery stores are potentially ground-breaking for the food industry. Yet, the technology in play has serious potential for misuse.

Perhaps ironically, when Amazon-Go opened its first store the hype was so extensive that the concept of ‘no queues’ quickly induced enormous lines of people in front of the store. Nevertheless, it is no secret that the new technology behind the success of Amazon-Go is ground-breaking. After Amazon has successfully disrupted myriad industries, t is now moving towards groceries making traditional grocery stores obsolete. The recent acquisition of Whole Foods, and the debut of the first Amazon-Go store is just the beginning of Amazon’s expansion into the food market.

Let us have a look what lies behind the magic of Amazon-Go. Once you have downloaded the AmazonGo App you can enter the store by scanning your barcode at the entrance. Amazon registers you and from this moment on you are under the surveillance of so-called ‘smart cameras’, which can recognize you by the shape of your body and other physical features. Watching you peruse the shelves, the camera system sees you pick up any groceries and store them in your bag. Scales on the shelves record the quantity of a product you took, noting it on your app. After you have picked all of your groceries you can leave the store. The system notifies this and transfers the cost of the products from you Amazon-go account to Amazon.

Whilst economically appealing, the political implications are potentially disturbing. Amazon does not only know what you bought, and when you bought it, it can also recognize you by the shape of your body and your movement. This brings about a ‘Big Brother’s watching you’ scenario which is exactly what makes it interesting for the Chinese government. Over 100 million smart cameras watch the streets of China and document any humans or ‘objects’ such as cars, motorcycles, and even bicycles, and use this information to track targets. This enables the government to thoroughly assess any situation and bolster state power; with human privacy falling by the wayside.

Fortunately, the Chinese government has little interest in scaring its citizens and is therefore using smart cameras to create ‘smart-cities’. Similarly, to AmazonGo, Chinese grocery stores have face recognition to enter and leave the store, the same concept is used for entering and leaving resident compounds and can be used for any building. However convenient these smart-cities might be, the government now even knows when a citizen leaves his home, goes shopping or works out at the gym. These technologies will not only serve for surveillance, the collected real-time data can also be used to optimize political decisions, security, warfare and even influence the economy.

At this point we have to ask ourselves the question of where we draw the line between freedom and security, privacy and convenience. Apple sent out a clear message when it denied access to the San Bernardino terrorist iPhone to the FBI in 2016. However, with new and more effective technologies available to governments and companies every year, Orwellian nightmares become more conceivable by the month.