UAE shops unlikely to use mannequins that profile shoppers

Smart mannequins are the latest trend in retail, but they are unlikely to be used here.

The Italian mannequin maker Almax is selling life-size store dummies that spy on shoppers. Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters
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Privacy laws in the UAE may make it impossible for local retailers to make use of a new technology rapidly finding favour elsewhere.

The Italian mannequin maker Almax is selling life-size store dummies that spy on shoppers using face-profiling technology. The system is designed to help retailers to make more informed business decisions by gathering data on who their customers are and when they shop.

The company says five retailers across the United States and Europe are operating "a few dozen" of the mannequins, with orders for many more.

Retailers here often take their lead from their counterparts based overseas.

But while the UAE does not have a single privacy law dedicated to data protection, there are a number that could apply - including the recently passed cybercrime law.

"It actually makes it an offence to capture an image," said Duncan Pickering, a partner in the DLA Piper property group in Abu Dhabi.

"The sanction is imprisonment of not less than six months and a fine of not less than Dh150,000 [US$40,837] and not exceeding Dh500,000 to use an information network, an electronic information system or an IT device to infringe on the privacy of a person in circumstances other than those permitted by law."

Permitted images might include those captured by a security camera.

"It squarely refers to capturing photos. So it does seem as though it would fall [under the law]. Notwithstanding that the device actually doesn't store the photos, as I understand it. It just uses the photos to take the analytics out and doesn't retain them," said Mr Pickering.

It remains to be seen how the cyber law will be implemented and whether exceptions will be made for technology such as the Almax system, or whether if consent is given or appropriate notification posted it would constitute a circumstance permitted within the law.

"It's a tricky one though. The idea of a consent being given simply by walking into a shop that has a notice on the door saying you might be filmed, I think retailers need to carefully consider whether that actually might constitute a consent," said Mr Pickering.

Local retailers should seek guidance before they employ the technology to ensure they do not fall foul of the legislation.

"Or they might take the view that the risk of doing something like that simply outweighed the benefit given that it is a criminal offence, or they might be committing a criminal offence by setting it up and operating it," added Mr Pickering.