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Coming to store shelves: cameras that guess your age, sex and mood

This March 7, 2019, photo shows a smart shelf area at Walgreens in Chicago. Walgreens, which has more than 8,000 drugstores, installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Washington. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, there are video screens that display ads along with the cooler’s contents. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

This March 7, 2019, photo shows a smart shelf area at Walgreens in Chicago. Walgreens installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Washington. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, video screens display ads and the cooler’s contents. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

NEW YORK — Eyeing that can of soda in the supermarket cooler? Or maybe you’re craving a pint of ice cream? A camera could be watching you.

But it’s not there to see if you’re stealing. These cameras want to get to know you and what you’re buying.

It’s a new technology being trotted out to retailers, one that uses cameras to try to guess your age, gender or mood as you walk by. The intent is to use the information to show you targeted real-time ads on in-store video screens.

Companies are pitching retailers to bring the technology into their physical stores as a way to better compete with online rivals such as Amazon that are already armed with troves of information on their customers and their buying habits.

With store cameras, you may not even realize you are being watched unless you happen to notice the penny-sized lenses. And that has raised concerns over privacy.

“The creepy factor here is definitely a 10 out of 10,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit that researches privacy issues.

At the National Retail Federation trade show in New York earlier this year, a smart shelf on display by Mood Media tried to detect “happiness” or “fear” as people stood in front it — information a store could use to gauge reaction to a product on the shelf or an ad on a screen.

For now, the cameras are in just a handful of stores.

Kroger, which has 2,800 supermarkets, is testing cameras embedded in a price sign above shelves in two stores in the suburbs outside Cincinnati and Seattle. Video screens attached to the shelves can play ads and show discounts. Kroger said that the cameras guess a shopper’s age and sex but that the information is anonymous and the data is not being stored. If the tests work out well, the company said it could expand the cameras into other locations.

Walgreens, which has more than 8,000 drugstores, installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Washington. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, video screens display ads along with the cooler’s contents.

Above the door handle is a camera that can try to guess ages and track irises to see where you are looking, but Walgreens said those functions are off for now. The company said the cameras are currently being used to sense when someone is in front of the cooler and to count the number of shoppers passing by. The company declined to say if it would turn on the other functions of the camera.

“All such enhancements will be carefully reviewed and considered in light of any consumer privacy concerns,” Walgreens said.

Advocates of the technology say it could benefit shoppers by showing them discounts tailored to them or drawing attention to products that are on sale. But privacy experts warn that even if the information being collected is anonymous, it can still be used in an intrusive way.

For instance, if many people are eyeing a not-so-healthy dessert but not buying it, a store could place it at the checkout line so they see it again and “maybe (their) willpower breaks down,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and co-director of its Tech Policy Lab.

“Just because a company doesn’t know exactly who you are doesn’t mean they can’t do things that will harm you,” Calo said.

The technology could also lead to discriminatory practices, such as raising prices when an older person walks in or pushing ads for products based on a person’s perceived mood, such as those for anti-depression medication if the cameras think a person looks sad, adds Dixon of the World Privacy Forum.

“We shouldn’t be gathering the emotional state of anyone,” Dixon said.

Associated Press reporters Manuel Valdes in Seattle and Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this story.