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Russian Billboard for Banned Italian Imports Hides When it Sees a Cop

Ah, Italy! It’s a food Nirvana, offering deliciously crafted proscuitto, mortadella, Balsamic vinegar and olive oils, various decadent formaggi and, of course, Prosecco. Gotta have the Prosecco. But after Russia imposed a country-wide blanket ban on food imports from the EU and the US in retaliation for sanctions in the Ukraine situation, niche food merchants in the capital were left out in the famous Muscovite cold.

Well…mostly. One of those, the evocatively named Don Giulio’s Salumeria, found an innovative way to get around the embargo: rigged outdoor billboards.

When the gates to the paradisio culinario slammed shut, Don Giulio’s decided to pay an ad company called The 23 to install interactive digital billboards with facial recognition software that can identify Russian police by their badges and liveries. If the fuzz is detected, the ad is immediately replaced by an innocuous notice touting the Matryoshka doll shop—nesting, if you will, inside until it’s safe to come out again.

Pretty sneaky—and gutsy. Also breathtakingly ineffective as a covert tactic, as this YouTube video shows. But the main point here is what this indicates for facial recognition and advertising in general.

To wit, drumming up customers for contraband involves a kind of targeting—i.e., everyone who’s not in a police uniform—and the technology can clearly go so much farther.

Imagine being surrounded by billboards that can silently watch and glean information about their environment, the better to offer up targeted messaging—at first. If one registers a certain team logo on an item of clothing, it can show game-day specials. If there’s a convention in town, tourist attractions can offer discounts to be shown when a badge walks by. When certain kinds of cars approach on the freeway, the boards can display refinance offers.

Worse, true facial recognition can be used for gender- or age-based ad-serving, and could even in theory be used by the government to track individual citizens.

So we ask: as this just a cute prank that went viral, or a terrifying, Inferno-like gateway to the ninth circle of surveillance hell? 

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