Combating Digital Shoplifting & Protecting IP from Digital(vandal)ism

Posted on 03. May, 2011 by in Thoughts

I’m a big fan of mobile barcode price comparison, and I followed with great interest Jeffrey Sharkey’s Compare Everywhere app (formally Andriod Scan) when it featured in the top 50 of Google’s Android Developer challenge. No Cameras

Mobile barcode price comparison is big, especially in Japan where BBC’s Quentin Sommerville reports a ‘digital shoplifting’ plague. People find books, pictures, products, etc, and take a picture on their mobile, where an app will look for a cheaper equivalent elsewhere. Retailers naturally dislike this type of activity as it could deter a sale.

I once speculated mobile barcode price comparison might kill traditional shopping. I might have been a little naïve, not only because I used the word ‘kill’, which is a very bold statement (I was young, forgive me), but because recently I stumbled across a paper that describes a means to prevent image capturing, which fuels mobile price comparison, entitled “Preventing Camera Recording by Designing a Capture-Resistant Environment” (found here) by Khai N. Truong, Shwetak N. Patel, Jay W. Summet and Gregory D. Abowd from College of Computing & GVU Center, Georgia Institute of Technology.


With the ubiquity of camera phones, it is now possible to capture digital still and moving images anywhere, raising a legitimate concern for many organizations and individuals. Although legal and social boundaries can curb the capture of sensitive information, it sometimes is neither practical nor desirable to follow the option of confiscating the capture device from an individual. We present the design and proof of concept implementation of a capture-resistant environment that prevents the recording of still and moving images without requiring any cooperation on the part of the capturing device or its operator. Our solution involves a tracking system that uses computer vision for locating any number of retro-reflective CCD or CMOS camera sensors in a= protected area. A pulsing light is then directed at the lens, distorting any imagery the camera records. Although the directed light interferes with the camera’s operation, it can be designed to minimally impact the sight of other humans in the environment.

I found this paper very interesting, because it goes into detail about a system that prevents cameras, be it still or video, from capturing images or intellectual proprty. Directly impacting mobile barcode price comparison, this system would work to deter a mobile phone user from capturing a barcode of a product and comparing prices by introducing a ‘camera neutralizer’ (James Bond movie springs to mind).

Camera neutralizer diagram

When a user introduces a camera into the capture-resistant environment, a camera detector component locates the device within its field of view and the camera neutralizer component emits a localized light beam (yellow) at the camera to block the camera’s view of a portion of the surface the system attempts to guard from capture. The red bar indicates the protected surface. The blue indicates the field of view of the user’s camera. The pink indicates the camera neutralizer’s field of influence. Dashed lines indicate the portion of the protected surface that is affected by the neutralizer’s light beam.

Simplistically, a ‘projector’ like device would automatically detect and omit a beam that skews your devices image capturing, preventing barcode comparison, for example. I haven’t researched if a device of such ’really’ exists, but if mobile barcode price comparison continues to increase with the mobile revolution, I bet angry retailers would snap them up like hotcakes.


Forgetting mobile price comparison for a second, I imagine this device, and the principle of preventing image capturing, would be useful for others beyond retail. The paper goes on to give an example of a museum, where an artist would want to prevent people taking pictures of their artwork – digital(vandal)ism.

This brings me onto intellectual property (IP). The artists artwork is his or hers IP. In order to use their IP digitally (or traditionally), the IP owners’ rights must be adhered too. Rights could be a request for permission or the user must pay a fee, like radio stations pay musicians to play their music.

Interestingly, user-generated content websites like YouTube, Panaramio, Flickr etc all thrive on users uploading and sharing content. With dictator strict IP laws, I think such websites would not exist.

The Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-495, 118 Stat. 3999-4000) amends the federal criminal code to provide that whoever knowingly videotapes, photographs, films, records by any means, or broadcasts an image of a private area of an individual, without that individual’s consent, under circumstances in which that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy, shall be fined or imprisoned not more than one year, or both. Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004

But the question is, how many videos, pictures or intellectual property in general was permitted to be captured and shared by the owner or person featuring? We suspect a lot of brands would like to prevent digital(vandal)ism of this form. Protecting how people perceive, share and use their intellectual property is big business for brands.

Do you think brands will rebel and try and prevent mobile barcode price comparison, ‘digital shoplifting’ and protect their intellectual property from digital(vandal)ism? How would you, as a person, react if you were prevented from scanning a product or taking a picture in a certain vicinity?

Tags: , , , , ,