We're Watching You

Want some privacy? Don't leave your house.

Contrary to an article published in the March issue of D magazine, neither Sonny Bryan's nor Tom Tom Noodle House has hidden microphones at their tables--nor do all owners desire that information, even though it's available.

Yes, they have cameras, but they're not listening.

"We'd never do anything like that--it's a complete invasion of privacy," says Russell Hayward, owner of Tom Tom Noodle House. Hayward installed a surveillance system in 2000. The cameras are trained on the back door, the safe and on cash registers, but not on customers. "If you have to eavesdrop on staff, then you need to look at your hiring process more closely."

Mark Andresen

DV Dallas is working with an undisclosed Dallas-based restaurant chain that is interested in what happens in both the front and back of the house. The managers will know who is pilfering food or booze, who orders a salad and the manner in which it's delivered.

"I imagine managers would be interested in traffic by time of day, capturing images of satisfied customers leaving or hungry customers arriving, making sure they're greeted with a smile and monitoring the average wait time," says DV's chief operating officer, Tom Jones.

The restaurants will not be equipped for audio surveillance, Jones says.

Has the proliferation of surveillance systems raised concerns about privacy?

Griggs says some employees are uncomfortable with being watched, but he doesn't know anyone who has formally complained. "We don't have it in the bathroom or backroom where we eat lunch or where we adjust clothing. We don't do that," he says.

From the moment you leave your house to the moment you shut the door behind you, you have almost no privacy, says Jackson Walker attorney Jim McCown, who represents the Dallas Observer.

Basically, court rulings on privacy are based on zones or expectations of privacy, he says. For example, most people expect that their homes are private spaces. Same goes for bathrooms and dressing rooms. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Shoplifters are regularly prosecuted for concealing merchandise they carry into these "private" places. In Texas, it's legal for either party to a phone conversation to record it without notifying the other person. E-mail isn't private. And neither is buying a stereo or swiping your debit card at the grocery store.

In addition to managing employee behavior and controlling merchandise, surveillance systems are now being used to generate a profile of you.

Bittner claims that Wal-Mart stores have in place a surveillance system that captures customer response to merchandise displays and signs. At the checkout, items swiped across the bar code scanner are photographed along with the customer. Additionally, the debit card transaction is connected to the customer. A picture of the product and consumer are tied together for marketing purposes. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber says she was unaware of such a system, but Bittner says he was one of a handful of companies to bid on the project last year.

"I would dare say that every building in America in the next year or two will have some form of digital cameras," Bittner says. "We're at war."

And that means good business.

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