(Source: Dreamworks)

One of the scanning billboards springs into action.  (Source: AFP)
Is technology another great step in advertising or an outrageous violation of privacy?

In Tokyo Big Brother is really watching you -- but Big Brother is actually big business.  Businesses on the island nation are reportedly rolling out advertising billboards with cameras that scan nearby viewers' age and sex.  Japanese firms believe they can use these metrics, much like internet advertising, to better target customers.

The project, the Digital Signage Promotion Project, was launched by 11 railroad companies last month.  Twenty-seven of the vigilant billboards are deployed in subway commuter stations around Tokyo.

A spokeperson describes, "The camera can distinguish a person's sex and approximate age, even if the person only walks by in front of the display, at least if he or she looks at the screen for a second."

The station can then serve up ads "which meet the interest of people who use the station at a certain time."

The invention mirrors the smart billboards found in the movie "Minority Report" directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise.  In that film Cruise's character is recognized by advertising billboards which say his name aloud, endangering him when he's on the run form the law.

Currently the Japanese experiment does not recognize individuals -- only basic demographic data.  And the companies involve promise that video of their passing customers won't be stored.

Japan is often a nation who takes an edgy stance on privacy.  A Japanese firm recently created a stir when it released a "caring", "mothering" system to help businesses snoop on their employees cell phones.

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

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