Lord Sugar's OptimEyes system will track your face and eyeballs

Now when we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will gaze back, and come to know us.

As the amount of consumer data in the world proliferates like bacterial mass in a petri dish, companies expect to see more and more of it before committing to advertising spend.

Rather than just plastering brand names on any physical space and hoping for the best, marketers need hard, numerical reassurance from media platforms to prove their campaigns will deliver the right return on investment.

Measured talk of “bang for yer buck” has been de rigueur for some time in the world of online advertising, where the nature of the medium has afforded advertisers increasingly precise information on who is clocking their brand, when they are doing it, and what their online habits are.

But until now, meatspace marketing has largely relied on best guesses to calibrate public exposure to ads.

Enter Lord Sugar and Amscreen, the digital signage business he chairs, which is rolling out the dystopic-sounding OptimEyes system to its 6,000 display screens worldwide. OptimEyes screens will watch you as you watch them; analysing your face and recording for advertisers your age, gender, location and hunger for emptying your wallet.

How wonderful.

The type of technology we all thought was desperately creepy when it started appearing in living room corners via the Xbox Kinect add-on is now actively evaluating our commercial potential, rather than just animating charming cartoon homunculi of us in pretend sports.

When we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will now gaze back into us. And it will come to know us.

While OptimEyes is a fantastic business idea, and has the potential to revolutionise display advertising if it works as claimed, I would hope we can all come to the further consensus that it feels downright bone-deep horrible. 

Particularly troubling is the system’s ability to tell the sex of the person glancing at an ad. Gender-focused advertising is one of the great enablers of sexism as a societal norm, and this sort of scrutiny will only give advertisers more reason to presume our wants and needs based on our groinal architecture.

But there is a way round this.

A friend of mine, frothing with irritation at the saccharine weight-loss marketing that Facebook thought someone of her chromosomal persuasion would be desperate to see, recently changed her status to Male.

Immediately, everything was paintball weekends, virile deodorant, and diagrams showing her how to make her lower body look like two yorkie bars wrapped in parma ham. It was no better, but at least less presumptive and personally condescending.

Her small but perfectly formed act of rebellion came to mind when reading about OptimEyes, and gave me a flash of inspiration regarding how to stop this new technology dictating The Way The World Works.

Every member of the British public should carry one of these in a pocket, ready to slap it on and stare directly into the camera as they pass an Amscreen monitor:

Then, like Medusa looking into her own petrifying reflection in Perseus’ shield, Sugar’s abyss can gaze right back at its own mug.

Lord Sugar's new company will track user's faces. Photograph: Getty Images.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.