Monday, 27 February 2012

Don't look unless your biometrics are gender-normal!

Down in deepest Sussex we don't get London news, and it was quite by chance that I heard about this on BBC Radio 4's You and yours programme at midday today.

A children's charity called Plan UK has got together with a company that offers digital advertising technology, Clear Channel, to install an interactive panel at a bus stop opposite Selfridges in Oxford Street, London. This panel 'uses facial recognition scanning on interested viewers but only shows the ad to women - denying males the choice to view the content.' (I quote from Plan UK's website) The broad intention is to demonstrate to the male half of the population what it feels like when you are shut out of a process because of your gender, and denied information that could enhance your life. Plan UK's underlying message is that all over the world girls are being deprived of choices that could transform their lives for the better, simply because access to information is denied to them. That could be basic health information, contraceptive information, educational information...a long list. Hopefully, the inability of men and boys to view this Oxford Street ad will jolt them into recognising a very big problem.

Everyone coming within range of the digital panel can engage with it. It will ask you to come closer to see more of what made you look in the first place. But then, when it gets your face properly in view, it makes a biometric analysis of your features. If it judges you to be male, it shows you nothing more. And perhaps it also says, 'Sorry, you are male and are not allowed to see this ad, which is reserved for females only'. On the other hand, if it judges you to be female, the ad is fully revealed - maybe with a fanfair and music - and presumably it is delightful to watch.

Well, this all sounds well-intentioned, at least in the context of what Plan UK want to achieve.

But what happens if a trans woman or a trans man is waiting at the bus stop, and within range of the panel? They could be outed in a highly public and embarrassing way, couldn't they? Because unless a trans person is naturally endowed with the correct facial biometrics, or has had their face drastically modified by surgery, the panel will misread them and either deny them access to the ad if MTF, or, if FTM, let them see it when they shouldn't have access. Leading to cries of 'Ooooh! You must be a man!' or 'Ooooh! You must be a girl!' as the case may be. Hard to laugh it off as a technical malfunction. What a nightmare.

And you don't have to be trans to be misread. Butch women and effeminate men may be at risk too.

This particular panel is on a two-week trial only (so get up to Oxford Street fast if you want to try it out). But what happens if it catches on, and these gender-discriminating panels spring up everywhere? Especially wherever people have to queue up, and watch as a captive audience? Stand too close, and look at the panel, and you could end up very red-faced indeed.


  1. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

    Isn't it sad that men and woman have to be seperated? We all overlap in so many ways

  2. I've seen this somewhere else recently on another blog. I posted a comment reaching exactly the same conclusion as yourself, the technolgy can do that and it can get it wrong too! Whatever parameters are in it's programming will decide on its response and as you say many women will not necessarily have the perfect feminine face. I'd steer clear of such devices just in case. Why don't people think before they do things like this? If it is deemed successful we may get to see the technology in all sorts of applications. Mmmm... not a good idea.

    Shirley Anne xxx


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