Those Voices in Your Head are Real – in Some Stores

20 Aug

Those Voices In Your Head Are Real–At Least, In Some Stores

A creepy new retail technology will whisper sweet nothings into your ear.
Announcement: You can now also follow me on Psychology Today’s blog page at:

A funny thing happened as I was waiting to go into the studio at the Newark, N.J. head office of Audible. I was there to record the audiobook version of Technocreep.  As I sat in their comfy reception area, I was sure I could hear a book being read. I moved and heard something different. Sure enough, small directional speakers were housed in the ceiling. Fair enough, they’re in the business of making and selling audio books.

Then, I stumbled on this photo, with an interesting commentary attached, from a Flickr user who calls himself Bark:

Shopper in the Grocery Aisle

Shopper Bark Listens to the Cries of the Cookies
Via Flickr, under Creative Commons Share License, source:

“So yah, i’m in the crackers aisle getting some healthy snack foods..and voila, they put the cookies right across from them. I love cookies. Like love them. I kept my back to them but I could hear their cries.”

Hear their cries?

In Technocreep, I wrote about smart store shelves that would sense and interpret the physical attributes of passers-by. Is that a man or a woman? Young or old? Approximate body mass index? I even speculated that retail stores might automatically adjust prices based on what they could deduce about you.

That’s not so farfetched. Online travel site Orbitz was caught in 2012 displaying more expensive hotels to people using Apple computers. The company’s chief technology officer, Roger Liew, confirmed the practice, telling the Wall Street Journal “We had the intuition, and we were able to confirm it based on the data.”

In a similar fashion, Amazon has experimented with dynamic pricing. One fellow bought a certain DVD for $24.49, then came back a week later and found the price was $26.24. When he removed the tracking cookie that Amazon used to identify him, the price dropped to $22.74.

As long as we’re aware of these manipulations, we can defend ourselves. But what if the store shelves start whispering to us, in the very manner suggested by photo-poster Bark?

That’s precisely the goal of Audio Spotlight®, a directional speaker technology from Watertown, MA based Holosonics Research Labs, Inc. With the slogan “Beam Sound, Boost Sales,” the company boasts that it has been used successfully by clients such as Daimler Chrysler and Remy Martin to “grab passersby by the ears”.

In an uber-creepy Youtube video  ( advertising firm Ogilvy New Zealand asks “How do you Tell Someone to Buy Fair Trade Bananas?” They then answer the question with “You don’t. You let their conscience tell them.”

With a recorded script that is bound to send some shoppers running for the exit, a soft female voice proclaims, and I’m not making this up: “Hi, you can hear me, can’t you? You’re the only one. Look around, no-one else can. Know who I am? I’m your inner voice.”

This bizarre campaign won a “Best Ad” award, and so it should — it increased sales of All Good Fairtrade bananas by 130%. It’s only a matter of time until your own inner voice starts speaking to you in a certain haunted spot in the grocery store. Or the liquor store. Or the adult toys store. The mind boggles.

It gets worse. The inventor of this technology, Joseph Pompei, did his work at MIT’s Media Lab, where he figured out that the only ways to make sound travel like a laser beam was either to have extremely large speakers, or to use high frequency sounds. He chose the latter. So the system uses high frequency audio, the kind that has been used to keep teenagers (who have better hearing than older folks) away from malls. It’s also the technology behind dog whistles. As the high frequency waves pass through the air, they become audible.

Audio Spotlight® certainly has some good applications, and it’s even used at the New York Public Library to allow social gaming and movie watching to co-exist with the “Shhh!” world of libraries.  So there’s nothing intrinsically evil about this invention, and it has been around since 2000.

What is a worry, though, is how it is being used to influence people who simply walk into the “cone of sound”. At the very least (and the bananas example does provide this) there should be ample signage warning about this new marketing technique. Then, there will be a simple countermeasure — simply walk around the sound zone and continue your shopping, listening to your own inner monologue instead of the prattle of some advertiser.

What do you think — is Audio Spotlight® creepy or cool (or both)?

Creepy new toys for gambling cheats — just in time for DEFCON 2014

6 Jul

At DEFCON 2013 in Las Vegas  there was a bit of a kerfuffle when a presenter pointed out, er, some vulnerabilities in a card-driven door locking system often used in hotels. It came out that certain Las Vegas hotels owned by a well know entrepreneur (is that vague enough, Steve?) were apparently using this very system, so a lot of hotel door locks might not  be all that secure.

Now, we have word that a Chinese company has been selling infra-red contact lenses for around $3,000 US.  They allow the wearer to see otherwise invisible markings on a marked deck of cards. An Italian card shark named Stefano Ampollini was caught doing this at a casino in Cannes, and wound up being fined $100,000 (about what he won) and sentenced to two years in jail.

In my new book,Technocreep ( I discuss the merging of technology and the human body, citing, for example, contact lenses that can sense glucose levels and help diabetics. That’s obviously a great use, but the nefarious applications of technologies like this seem to be coming at us even faster.

There are whole companies in China dedicated to selling Americans (and Russian and Indians) the “tools of the cheatin’ trade” ranging from marked cards to remote control dice.  One vendor (OK, it’s, you could find it in a flash anyways) even has a device than can read you the entire 52 card deck through a hidden earpiece, thereby greatly upping your odds of winning in a friendly poker game (where you bring the cards) and getting into serious trouble in a casino. (where they know all about this stuff)




Their website has no prices…you leave a message and they get back to you with a quote.  And they take payment via Western Union..  (Shame on you, WU – your founders, including Ezra Cornell must be rolling in their graves to see what you’ve become.)


Just give these industrious cheat-makers a bit of time and they’ll be selling you implantable versions of their technology along with the surgical tools to install it in your body. And the casinos will make you walk through scanners. After all, they caught the guy with the contact lenses, though it turns out it was by good old behavioral analysis – he was folding with some pretty good hands which tipped the casino off that he knew that the dealer had even better cards!





Thoughtful review of my book Technocreep

21 Jun

I was honored to have the first review of my new book, Technocreep, penned (typed) by the noted privacy thinker, journalist and fellow author (Net.Wars, From Anarcy to Power – The Net Comes of Age) Wendy Grossman:

Wendy, of course, really “gets it” when it comes to privacy issues and technology and I was delighted that she gave the book such an insightful treatment.  In particular she wrote this:

Most of the book is taken up with exploring the many manifestations of technological creepiness. Keenan covers the ways our smartphones and computers (including the ones in our cars) can be used to spy on us and invade our privacy, as you’d expect. But he also delves into the way technology is changing our relationships with each other, with our environment, and even our pets. Keenan concludes with advice and tools for protecting privacy online.



In the true spirit of Technocreep, I should disclose that I was first alerted to the existence of this review by Google Alerts, just the type of technology that I warn you about in the book.  So, indeed, as Wendy says, most technologies have both good and bad applications. I join her in suggesting that we need to give those uses careful forethought…before we reach a point of no return!

Out of the mouths of comedians cometh great creepiness

21 Jun

I want to applaud Google’s “Made With Code” initiative. It will be great to see more girls getting their hands dirty with code, though I personally believe the real power will lie in being able to handle both the technical side of things and develop amazing uses for it.

In that vein, according to a NY Daily News story,

Mindy Kaling, of “The Mindy Project” suggested some fun (and creepy) new apps including

“Shazaam for Perfume” and the “What’s His Deal?” app, “that takes a picture of a guy and tells you what’s his deal? Married? Single? Weirdo? What’s his car like?”

While she was firmly tongue in cheek, somebody is probably staying up all night tonight trying to make them. Let’s hope it will be a “Girl Who Codes”

Stalker app shows why you should keep your phone in your pocket and your laptop powered off at the coffee shop

13 Jun

Now that my new baby (i.e. book)  Technocreep-The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy  ( has been born and is making its way into the world… I am returning to blogging and other activities to help us all have fun with the creepy side of technology on an ongoing basis.

Even though I sometimes make light of the risks, they are often quite serious.  As I said in Technocreep, “You have been warned.”

One very creepy aspect of our lives is the way we simply assume that we are having a private conversation with a friend, or an app, or a website (like OKCupid!) while using one of those oh-so-tempting free public Wi-Fis. Nothing could be further from the truth.  We now know that governments around the world are listening in (thanks, Edward Snowden) and (as shown in Technocreep) companies have a huge monetary interest in knowing what’s on your mind through the things you enter online.

And now, even that creepy dude in the coffee shop may be grabbing your intimate details.

CNN reports today  ( on a creepy new piece of software called Stalker.







Armed with this tool, a malefactor can grab a lot of unencrypted traffic and produce profiles of users including, as shown here, sites visited, and personal information like age and favorite music, and in some cases, passwords.

Security firm Immunity, Inc. says they built Stalker to help companies understand Wi-Fi risks and do something about them.  It also provides a cautionary tale for all those people who do their banking, chatting, and online dating from the nearest Starbucks or McDonalds.

As usual, there’s more to the story than CNN could present in a short item.

As explained at BlackHat USA,  last summer, an even creepier little box called CreepyDol may already be lurking in your favorite lunch spot or gym.  Law student and computer security researcher Brendan O’Connor showed off the device, which he says cost $57 in parts to create.  It can sit undetected, plugged into a power outlet, grab all the WiFi traffic in the place and send it off to a very hard-to-find location in cyberspace.

More details are found at

Click to access US-13-OConnor-CreepyDOL-Cheap-Distributed-Stalking-Slides.pdf

and here’s what one version of the guts of the thing,



Photo: Brendan O’Connor

though I’ll bet if anybody is dropping these into coffee shops and the like, they’ll  look more like clock radios or carbon monoxide detectors.


Again, you have been warned.




Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy

13 Jun

Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book, Technocreep which is getting a great reception. It’s available now at and the Canadian edition will be published in Sept. 2014 by Greystone Book of Vancouver, BC.

Discount coupons for things that go into your body, besides food, just strike me as creepy

6 Oct

Like cut-rate teeth whitening, and services like this, which it says in the fine print is “Valid for Women Only”  They just might have a human rights complaint coming their way!


PS  While this blog has been dormant for several months, I have NOT been.  In fact, I’ve been devoting all my creepiness energy to a forthcoming book (hardcopy and e-book) being published by OR Books, New York.  I’ll put the details up here as soon as it’s ready!

“And those clouds…they’re realtime” (until they’re hacked)

20 May

Google Maps guru Bernhardt Seefeld waxed poetic thusly, Image

as he described the features of the new Google Maps, which is still in Beta.

The whole video is at

One of the most interesting is a stream of user-posted images.  Seefeld showed interiors of the Sistine Chapel and the Moscone Center, saying there will be “a 3D photo tour that is automatically generated from user images, so it can only get better and better.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same company that had all those privacy issues with embarrassing StreetView images revealing things like US Senators leaving adult video stores with piles of tapes?  Heck, there’s even a website for that kind of sighting…

And those unfortunate photos  were taken by Google’s own funny looking vehicles!  Now they’re proposing to let the whole world put content into the mix. Even assuming they moderate this  thing well, and have an algorithmic way to blur faces and license plate  numbers, is Google ready for the onslaught of fake photos with manipulated geotags.  Maybe Our Savior will soon be making a live appearance on the crucifix inside the Chapel?

This is gonna be interesting.

Move over fingerprints, here come breathprints!

16 May

The holy trinity of identification technologies is usually:  something you know (like a password,) something you have (like a SecurID keyfob,) and something you are (such as the fingerprint readers on ThinkPad computers.)  So when we talk of “three factor identification” you can imagine someone juggling a keyfob in front of a reader, while typing in a pin, and trying to satisfy a hand geometry reader.

Scientists have been trying to push the scope of biometric identifiers for decades.  In the 1970s, a Japanese researcher named Suzuki (what else?) discovered some uniqueness to lip prints.  A 2006 Master’s thesis

pushed this research, called Cheiloscopy, even further.  Still, who wants to kiss an ATM machine to withdraw $100?

The latest breakthrough in non-invasive identification technology is breath analysis.

ImageResearchers at ETH Zurich have found “that individual signatures of breath composition exist.”

Work continues, and I will resist any suggestion of what you might have to do to withdraw that $100 if banks adopt this technology.

Spelling correctors and sexting do not mix!

17 Apr


These are probably real.  It would take too much algorithmic knowledge to fake them.  It’s funny how all the examples that get posted on sites like are sexual and/or embarassing.

This phenomenon even has a name, “the Cupertino effect,”  a legacy from early spell checkers that tried to replace the (unhypenated) word “cooperation” with “Cupertino.”  (or maybe it was a plot by Apple?)

Now spell checkers are context aware.  They use Bayesian algorithms and trillion word databases, as explained in

And of course they can be “trained” e.g. by “add word to dictionary.”   One might be able to learn a lot about some people from their Custom Dictionary files, which aren’t hard to find.

Hmm, I wonder if “Gay Guy Friend” (in the second example above) actually added “assplowing” to his dictionary for convenience. Maybe he just used it a lot.