LIP-READING CCTV software could soon be used to capture unsuspecting customer’s private conversations about products and services as they browse in high street stores.

Security experts say the technology will offer companies the chance to collect more “honest” market research but privacy campaigners have described the proposals as “creepy” and “completely irresponsible”.

Jonathan Ratcliffe of security firm CCTV.co.uk said: “visual speech recognition technology has been in development for some time and it’s almost ready to be unveiled in the next generation of CCTV systems.

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“This new tech will read lips and give you an idea of the words being spoken in the images it captures. While we generally associate this type of functionality with interpreting what contentious things were said by players at football matches, it has far wider-reaching implications, especially for business.”

Ratcliffe suggested customers who voluntarily complete market research surveys can be dishonest.

He said: “If you’re a business wanting to know your visitors’ opinions, a survey relies far too much on their honesty and effort to fill it in.

“With this leap in CCTV technology, businesses can analyse their customers’ reactions to a particular aspect of their store or service, and get qualitative as well as quantitative data. By capturing the comments of customers this way, they get an insight into unedited and genuine information that couldn’t be captured any other way.”

Ratcliffe admitted there could be an “uproar” if stores were to begin trialling the CCTV software but insisted it can be done.

“The technology is already in use,” he said. “CCTV analytics are in use for people counting, you hook the camera up to software which counts the number of people passing a certain trigger area. So, in this way we can use recorded sound to pass through voice to text software and a few other things to output data.”

Matthew Rice, director of Open Rights Group Scotland, which works to preserve digital rights and freedoms, said: “These proposals are creepy and intrusive, and ultimately could damage the trust between supermarkets and their customers. We do not expect to have our private conversations listened in to and recorded when we are shopping. If supermarkets are really looking for insights into their customers, then a start would be to realise that people don’t like being spied on.

“Developments like these are of particular concern for people in Scotland, where unlike England and Wales, there is no Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) to oversee the use of CCTV and ensure it meets a code of practice. We would urge the Scottish Government to create a similar post in Scotland to protect the public from these potential abuses.”

Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, added: “It is completely irresponsible for any company to promote secret lip-reading surveillance as a useful tool for stores to find out what their customers really think. If marketing teams or store managers want to know a customer’s opinion about a product or their shopping experience they should ask them. Secretly lip-reading people's conversations without their permission is a complete infringement on a person's right to privacy.”

However, Ratcliffe insisted it is only a matter of time before stores will have the technology to lip-read customers’ conversations.

He said: “Obviously, data protection is unclear if this is allowed, so it will take someone big to trial it and face possible backlash – you can imagine the uproar from a big supermarket trialling this technology, for example.

“I’d expect it to be used in the next few years though, and expect it to be trialled in a security role such as at airports.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The powers of the SCC do not extend to Scotland but CCTV providers in Scotland are encouraged to follow the commissioner's guidance.”