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Big Brother Is Selling

Some marketing techniques depicted in the futuristic 'Minority Report' seem close at hand, raising anew issues of privacy


And you think there's too much advertising now.

In the new movie "Minority Report," set in the year 2054, every billboard knows your name and holograms bark out personalized commercials. When star Tom Cruise, for instance, enters a Gap store (still in business!), computers identify him through an eye scan, triggering a holographic saleswoman whose job it is to recite his recent purchases and suggest new ones.

"This is the not-too-distant future. This is imminent," says Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network, a futurist consulting firm. In April 1999, at Spielberg's request, Schwartz organized a "think tank" of futurists to map out the world of 2054 at a three-day convention in Santa Monica.

While "1984"-ish science fiction stirs fright of Big Brother watching over your shoulder (and in "Minority's" case, inside your brain), Schwartz says this movie also tries to raise questions of how technological advances in security may foreshadow commercial intrusions of privacy.

"Whether it's your [credit] card, buying something on the Internet, or being scanned on a commuter train platform, information about us is being exchanged all over the place in lots of ways that make money for other people," says Leslie Reis, director of the Center of Information Technology and Privacy Law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. "And there are not many mechanisms out there right now that give a data subject control over how information about himself or herself is used."

Technologically, Reis and others say, futuristic advertising may be much closer than 2054. It's just a matter of putting the pieces together, and then walking the fine line between trying to reach customers without annoying them.

"In class I use the [hypothetical] example that I'm walking down State Street and my cell phone rings. It's Marshall Field's, and there's a generated message on there that says, 'Hi, Leslie, we're having a 20% off sale on petite women's clothing right now if you stop in.'

"What's been done is my phone number is on a database, my buying preferences are on a database, and that, combined with the ability to track my presence using the technology that's already in my cell phone.... It's really just an extension of the customer lists that are already out there."

In another scene from "Minority Report," which opened last Friday, Cruise shuffles through a subway corridor and his eyes are scanned by billboards, which call out his name and make personalized sales pitches.

Harold Krent, interim dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, says that while Spielberg's movie world may not be imminent, he's still keeping an eye on keeping retailers in check when it comes to privacy.

"We should be more concerned about the ability of retailers to deal in private information, as well as the ability of the government," Krent says. "So far there has been modest success in regulating insurance companies, financial institutions and health care in their use of private information."

But other analysts say the mere development of advertising technology doesn't necessarily portend Cruise's world of blaring billboards.

"A lot of futurist movies are based on this apocalyptic vision, and the whole idea is to scare people," says Eric Garland, a futurist consultant with Agos Dynamics Group in Washington, D.C., who is working on a book called "Doing Business in a World Without Secrets."

"Most of that is based on the passe idea of judging future situations with today's values. Most of what constitutes daily life that we've taken for granted now would absolutely scare someone from 1820 to death," Garland says.

"The technology being there is one thing. Getting everybody to agree on how to use the tech and to have consumer groups agree to that kind of invasion may be a different story," Garland says, pointing out the backlash against telemarketers and credit card companies sharing personal information. "Most technologies, in the way they're applied, are always based on our values."

Personalized ads have already arrived, of course, in junk mail and on the Web.

Thus far, the technique of eye scanning is used mostly for security.

Systems using iris recognition, in which volunteer frequent fliers have their eyes scanned for their unique optical imprint, have slowly begun to replace passport check-in at Amsterdam's Skipbohl Airport and London's Heathrow, and will soon be introduced for employee check-in at New York's JFK.

For now, using eye-scanners for advertising remains science fiction.

Glover Ferguson, who produces prototypes of new advertising technologies as chief scientist at the Accenture Technology Lab in Chicago, says the role of technology is to help advertisers reach customers on a more personal level.

"There's no law saying you can't run out of stores shouting at people, but it's not done. Whereas in higher-end clothing stores, we welcome people coming up and making specific suggestions," Ferguson says.

"In our culture, with our legal system, we will ultimately decide what's acceptable and what isn't," he says. "If it's unacceptable, we will treat it in such a way that it crawls to the side of society or we'll pass a law against it."

Nathan Bierma is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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