Pervasive eye tracking in the real-world environment and its considerations for privacy

Did you just see a person wearing a weird-looking pair of glasses with extra attachments walking around a supermarket? If you did, there is a high chance that he or she is using the state of the art, Tobii Pro Glasses 2 eye tracker from Tobii.

Eye tracking is no longer bound to physical laboratories and many industries (especially FMCGs for shopper research) are using wearable eye tracking as a method to gain insights into how their customers behave and what their eye movements mean.

Unlike in the case of other research methods whereby users are conscious of their behavior because they are at the center of the research study, most of the participants in a wearable eye tracking study quickly forget the fact that they were wearing a pair of eye trackers for the research.


source: Tobii Pro

The Tobii Pro Glasses 2 is light and fits like any other pair of standard glasses, which reduces the likelihood for participants to feel discomfort when wearing them, and ultimately their consciousness and biasness of the research. It also helps when the eye tracker records video outwardly towards what the participants see and does not record their face. Consent and confidentiality forms addressing the recording issues tend to reassure participants.

This however, poses an issue about privacy of the people who are not specifically recruited for the research study.

Here’s what happens…as participants move about in the study location doing their tasks, the outwardly-facing video camera captures the faces and actions of other people around them. As we would usually not know who would be around in the vicinity that day, we are unable to go around asking everybody for their consent to be accidentally captured in the video recording from the Glasses 2. The policies of the Personal Data Privacy Protection becomes particularly related and is also enforced, especially here in Singapore.

How do we solve this issue?

  • Get in touch with the manager/owner of the location you’re intending to conduct the research at and ask for permission. If your client has a direct relationship with the merchant, get them to contact the merchant with details of the research methodology and objectives. Once the merchant gives the go ahead, the store manager should then be informed about it. If that is not possible, try approaching the store manager first.
  • Informing other shoppers that a research study is going on by having signs at entraces/exits. At the location itself, a sign informing the public that a research study is being conducted and that they may be recorded can be placed in an area that the public can see easily (e.g. entrance/exit). When research is done in a more transparent manner (being more sensitive to the public and less secretive), this provides a more condusive environment for the study. The public will be less guarded and conscious of what is going on around them.
  • Assuring the privacy of others who appear in the recording. This can be done by taking extra measures to ensure the privacy of others. For instance, ensure that images of shoppers and staff who were recorded in the process be made unrecognisable. This can be done by mosaic-ing facial features, names, and any personal details in the video recordings or images used in the report.


    Censored (mosaic) face and name tag

  • Ensure secure storage. Have all recordings are locked and secured with encryption passwords, and only allow access to researchers who are directly involved in the research study.

We cannot cover and protect every single aspect of privacy in a research study. Even in our daily lives we may encounter instances where our personal privacy can be invaded through the sharing of personal information online or via our mobile phones. However, we do have to consider every contingency to the best of our knowledge and ability to ensure that the research is conducted in an ethical and proper manner.

3 thoughts on “Pervasive eye tracking in the real-world environment and its considerations for privacy

  1. Andrew Cave says:

    Hey, great article and nice overview of privacy concerns. I had to deal with some of the same issues when using eye-tracking in airport terminals. In the airport, federal police didn’t want to be recorded, so if I saw any police I would have to tell the participant to turn away. Or in the customs area of the airport, simply pause the recording in that area.

    In my research I had to follow the participants closely. I found having a clipboard with a picture of the glasses, and image of the university (something official) helped reduce concerns of other passengers who questioned/showed interest in what was going on.

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