It's watching you.

Facing the Facts

Students at the University of Waterloo in Canada were disturbed when they accidentally discovered that the vending machines on campus had a hidden feature that they felt invaded their privacy, reports CTV News — an eerie tale on how surveillance tech has crept its way into all kinds of "smart" appliances.

On its surface, the M&M-branded machines seemed as innocuous as any other snack dispenser. Then, out of the blue last month, an error window appeared on their screens, referring to a facial recognition application that the students had no idea about.

SquidKid47 via Reddit

"We wouldn't have known if it weren't for the application error. There's no warning here," River Stanley, a senior UWaterloo student who investigated the vending machine for the campus newspaper, told CTV News.

Unsettled by the idea of potentially being spied on, Stanley added that many students began to cover the tiny camera of the vending machines with chewing gum and sticky notes.

Low Profiler

The vending machines are manufactured by a company called Invenda — which markets them as "intelligent" vending machines — and are owned by the maker of M&Ms, MARS.

Alarmed by the glitch, the students did some digging on the manufacturer. On its website, they found a brochure for the vending machines which revealed that they're installed with a "demographic sensor."

Not only can the sensor perform a "people count," according to the brochure, it can also do "demographic profiling" which allows the machines to calculate the age and gender of anyone that approaches by using the camera.

"[I'm] kind of shocked just because it's a vending machine, and I don't really think they need to be taking facial recognition," another student told CTV News.

Invenda has defended itself by claiming these features are conducted in compliance with data privacy laws. "The demographic detection software integrated into the smart vending machine operates entirely locally," Invenda told Stanley in an email. "It does not engage in storage, communication, or transmission of any imagery or personally identifiable information."

Vend Diagram

Whatever legal technicalities, this is the kind of peak over-engineering that leaves people uneasy.

A simple window showing you the snacks inside, apparently, is just too low-tech. Instead, Invenda's new era of vending machines use giant touchscreens to inundate you with combo deals, promotions, and "AI-powered production recommendations," in order to boost sales by up to 60 percent, the manufacturer claims.

Understandably, the students weren't having it. Backlash ensued once word got out, and the university was forced to take action.

"The university has asked that these machines be removed from campus as soon as possible," a UWaterloo spokesperson told CTV News. "In the meantime, we've asked that the software be disabled."

More on privacy: Alarming New Satellite Can Spy on Individual People

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