Say hello to your vending machine - it might be watching you!

Filed Under: Featured, Microsoft, Privacy

Image of vending machine courtesy of ShutterstockSmart phones? Bah!

Think BIG. Think public. Think 'Internet of Things You Can't Get Away From'. Think smart vending machines!

Imagine this: you walk up, ready to quench your thirst with some high fructose corn syrup, and the beverage vending machine decides to draw on its internet-enabled access to cloud services and data analytics to take your image with HD video, guess your age, discern your gender and then target-market you.

Or, according to the press release:

Make the purchasing experience more personal, interactive and fun for consumers.

The Register's Simon Sharwood on Friday wrote up his experiences with perky vending machines from Intel and Microsoft.

Sharwood went to a recent Microsoft-hosted demonstration in Sydney where he became intimate with a fridge made by the local Coca-Cola bottler.

The sugar-water-stocked machine was taking photos of people in the vicinity, superimposing wigs on their heads and exhorting them to buy a drink - "all without obscuring the sweet, sweet, beautifully chilled beverages within, thanks to the use of a clear display."

Then, in Tokyo on Thursday, he got to stand in front of one of Intel's units, which guessed his age and gender, in order to better target its animations at subway visitors.

Sharwood writes that, according to Intel's demo, coffee appears to be a better suggestion for men.

The Intel machine put Sharwood into the rather broad age range of 20-39, which pleased the writer, who's about to turn 46.

Microsoft, for its part, recently announced Azure Intelligent Systems, a cloud-based service designed to manage Internet of Things (IoT) devices, collect the data they produce, and route it to tools; think business intelligence and related data-crunchers.

Of course, they're just joining the fray that includes more and more of the biggest tech giants who are now gleefully internet-enabling our formerly stupid appliances.

A recently released SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filing shows that Google expects advertising to creep into every crevice of the IoT.

In other words, say good morning to your house! From the sounds of it, someday soon it will know when you're up and out of bed and ready to be marketed at.

Rumor has it that Apple is poised to mix it up in the IoT with Google, with plans to announce a new software platform that would turn an iPhone into a remote-control platform for lighting systems, home security, kitchen gadgets and the like.

Of course, the IoT presents a whole new world of security risk.

As Naked Security's John Hawes noted recently, with the advent of the IoT comes the prospect of being at risk not only of attackers snooping on the data passing between us, the cloud-based service broker who handles it, and our devices - we're at risk of attackers taking over those data channels and hijacking the devices themselves.

Beyond those risks, the data flowing from these devices is potentially going to be ever more intimately, intrusively concerned with our private selves, from when we're at home, to the hours we're asleep, to what type of vending-machine snack we prefer: Cheesy? Chewy? Purchased at what hour of which day? From which we can surmise you were in transit through what part of the city?

Once such data is in the hands of a cloud service provider, there's always the possibility that it can be subpoenaed away by our (very data-hungry) governments.

There are, of course, business-smart reasons for internet-enabling vending machines.

Vending machine. Image courtesy of Deymos Photo /

Vending machines are, as Microsoft has pointed out in its marketing efforts, prone to getting wonky in humid conditions.

Outfitted with environmental sensors, they'll be able to flag upcoming problems to a vending machine operator before those problems materialise.

So yes, smart vending machines might make sense for some things, including the logistics of keeping them up so they can keep spewing snacks or weak coffee.

But they'll also be fully capable of spying on us.

We've already seen the likes of spying sidewalk contraptions in the form of London's spying rubbish bins, which were set up to identify and remember people's smartphones, and thereby the movements and habits of their owners, as they walked by.

That's kind of like how web pages monitor site traffic, just a whole lot creepier, given that you didn't have to visit a site to get monitored. All you had to do was blithely walk by.

This is not to say that vending machines are in fact tracking our mobile phones. London told the smart rubbish bin company to knock it off.

But say hello to your beverage vending machine anyway, since these latest demos show that it could well be watching you - with great interest!

Image of man at vending machine courtesy of Shutterstock.

Second image of vending machines courtesy of Deymos Photo /

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10 Responses to Say hello to your vending machine - it might be watching you!

  1. Sammie · 497 days ago

    I wonder in the future if the vending machine for sweets will want to sample your blood to monitor blood sugar levels before letting you buy the sweet of your choice. I wonder where this over intrusive nature of companies will lead to in the end. Maybe someday you might go for a blood test and start receiving flyers for funeral services before the test results come through. I wonder if that makes the purchasing experience more personal, interactive and fun for consumers.

  2. Anonymous · 497 days ago

    I wonder what the machine tries to sell you if you wear a Guy Fawkes mask (Anonymous).

  3. LindaB · 497 days ago

    For my part, I ignore any such ads and would walk away from such machines. The IoT will not be appearing inmmy house as it introduces too many for 'attack vectors' and things to be coded wrongly. I know what is in my fridge and when it needs replenishing, don't need a daft machine to tell me what to do.

  4. Profit! · 497 days ago

    "The Intel machine put Sharwood into the rather broad age range of 20-39, which pleased the writer, who's about to turn 46."

    Wow, it looks like someone at Intel did some forward thinking to make a sale by putting people in the younger age group. Now you'll think you look young so you can reward yourself with a candy bar and a soda instead of that dull bottle of water.

  5. Camera Shy · 497 days ago

    Makes donning a bruka look like a sensible "protection of privacy measure" - and I'm male!
    Now will someone invent an "electronic burka" so machines cannot read any electronic device that I have not totally disabled? Faraday cage woven into a bruka?

  6. David · 497 days ago

    Douglas Adams got there first, with the 'NutriMatic drinks dispenser' (in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy):

    "The way it works is very interesting. When the ‘Drink’ button is pressed it makes an instant, but highly-detailed, examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sends tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain, to see what is likely to be well received.

    However, no one knows quite why it does this, because it then invariably delivers a cup-full of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea."

    Share and Enjoy!

  7. Shades of Sirius Cybernetics and their Happy Vertical People Transporters.

  8. Roy · 496 days ago

    It would be even better if they could design one which makes a good cup of coffee.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.