Meet Pixoneye, the marketing tech start-up 'scanning' private smartphone photos

British start-up Pixoneye is pushing the boundaries of privacy with technology that scans smartphone photos for consumer insight.

Pixoneye: the start-up scans smartphone images for insights
Pixoneye: the start-up scans smartphone images for insights

The start-up is still relatively under the radar but raised its biggest funding round to date of £2.4m in late September.

It has conducted trials with Camelot and Dunnhumby, and was a finalist at Unilever’s Next Big Thing competition. Pixoneye is also backed by Collider, an industry accelerator that pairs brands and agencies with start-ups.

The proposition? Gleaning insights on customers by scanning their smartphone photo galleries.

Pixoneye’s software integrates into brand apps and asks the user’s permission to process their photos.

It then "reads" those photos for insights on anything from the user’s age and interests to whether they have pets or children. The brand can then use the information to push targeted offers through its app.

How far is too far?

When Campaign wrote about Pixoneye last year, it was not clear how the company would tackle the obvious privacy issues that arise from accessing consumer photos.

Chief executive Ofri Ben-Porat is firm that the software respects user privacy. Pixoneye does not capture or store any images, he says, and instead interprets objects as mathematical data.

"It completely disregards any object or face," Ben-Porat said. "It looks at angles, textures, colours and breaks those down into a formula."

All processing occurs on the device, meaning Pixoneye never pulls photos on to its own servers. "The only thing that takes any power is the initial scan of the photo and it’s done when the device is in low power mode or plugged into a power source," Ben-Porat added.

Nonetheless, the software can reportedly pull some 150 characteristics from users’ photos. That includes "non-linear" data such as income level, fashion sense and holiday style. That means brands can fine-tune their targeting. Pixoneye is also, potentially, accessing considerably more personal data than the average social network.

"Smartphone photos are the closest we have to offline, personal data," Ben-Porat said. "Out of a gallery of 1,200 photos, the user maybe uploads 1% to social media to keep the façade alive. But it’s about what happens to the other 20 photos you’ve taken, or shared internally, which you don’t look at again."

The idea is that brands require this level of information to push out relevant advertising. Ben-Porat pointed to the Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles problem as an example of the shallowness of online demographic data.

Both Dunnhumby and Camelot said they were no longer working with Pixoneye and the start-up could not disclose any other UK clients.

'The data never travels'

But is scanning smartphone data a step too far, even for insight-hungry brands? One agency innovation director with knowledge of Pixoneye thinks not.

The director pointed out that Pixoneye blocks ads that are not relevant to the user. "If Pixoneye sent all that profiling to a server somewhere and sold it, that’d be a very different issue," they said.

Ben-Porat added: "The data never travels. It is within the app and used by the app, rather than aggregated by huge data platforms and sold to highest bidder."

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