Emotion tracking company gets funding from the European Commission

By EDRi · May 6, 2015

Realeyes is a London based start-up company that tracks people’s facial reactions through webcams and smartphones in order to analyse their emotions. The analysed data is used to help companies maximise the impact of their advertising and market research campaigns. The technology allows the companies to know how consumers feel when they view the video content.

Realeyes has just received a 3,6 million euro funding from the European Commission to further develop emotion measurement technology. This grant is part of Horizon 2020, an EU research and innovation programme designed to encourage European competitiveness. This is happening at the same time as, the EU is trying to reform the current data protection legislation. In the absence of a meaningful update of the current legal framework, it is questionable whether the current data protection law can provide an adequate level of protection, and be effective in balancing different interests when it comes to profiling.

The technology is based on six basic emotional states that, according to the research of Dr Paul Ekman, a research psychologist, are universal across cultures, ages and geographic locations. The automated facial coding platform records and then analyses these universal emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust and confusion. The company is planning to develop the technology so that in the future even liking, boredom or attraction could be measured.

According to those supporting the use of such technology, this technological development could be a very powerful tool not only for advertising agencies, but as well for improving classroom learning, increasing drivers’ safety, or to be used as a type of lie detector test by the police. To participate in the study for testing and developing the tool, people are asked to give their consent and then share their subconscious responses to the content presented by simply using the webcam.

However, the technology raises some serious privacy concerns regarding the usage, storage and control of the data collected. First of all, the software not only detects consumers’ facial expression, but also a person’s gender and age bracket. Furthermore, according to the Realeyes privacy policy, even IP addresses and website usage information are being collected by placing cookies on consumers’ computers. All the collected data is being stored in a massive database, and the company has the possibility to combine all the data sets in order to build a more specific profile of a person. Lastly, the vague definition of retention period does not provide any degree of control or predictability to consumers, since the privacy policy says that personal information will be stored “for as long as it is required” for their research and business purposes. According to Anna Fielder, board chair of Privacy International, it is questionable whether the consumers, when consenting to the study, can truly understand how the technology was being implemented.

Profiling represents one of the biggest challenges for privacy due to the mass surveillance and technological capabilities of linking and analysing all the widely available data. Bearing in mind, for example, that the European Commission, in its proposal for the update of data protection legislation, introduced an option for Member States not to implement protections against profiling, its approach to this important issue seems profoundly reckless.

Emotion tracking start-up gets EU funding boost (17.04.2015.)

Webcam-based emotion ad tracking is a real thing and big brands are doing it (27.04.2015.)

Realeyes FAQs

Realeyes Privacy Policy

Googling your brain: latest “data protection” proposals from Council (14.01.2015.)

(Contribution by Morana Perušić, EDRi intern)