Ads with Eyes

This is a guest post by Harley Lorenz Geiger from the Center for Democracy & Technology

Marketers are creating digital signs that can display targeted ads based on information they extract from examining the contours of individual human faces.

These smart signs are proliferating in commercial establishments and public places from New York’s Times Square to St. Louis area shopping malls. They are a powerful innovation in advertising, but one that raises compelling privacy issues – issues that should be addressed now, before digital signs that monitor our behavior become the new normal.

Commonly known as digital signage, the signs look like flat-screen TVs running commercials in a loop. However, marketers have had difficulty determining who sees the display units, making it harder to measure viewership and target ads. The industry’s solution? Hidden facial recognition cameras.

The tiny cameras can estimate the age, ethnicity and gender of people passing by. The digital sign can then target an advertisement to whoever happens to be watching. Tens of millions of people have already been picked up by digital signage cameras.

To their credit, some companies using these tools have published privacy policies stating that they do not retain consumer information. However, other companies that use these tools are silent on what they do with information they collect by tracking consumers. Likewise, while digital signage trade associations tout the potential of tracking technology to increase industry profits, none of the associations currently recommend any privacy safeguards.

Moreover, company representatives have refused to identity the locations of their smart signs, openly stating that they do not want people to know which signs are watching them. Such anti-consumer secrecy is a dangerous precedent for an industry hoping to cash in on surveillance.

This must change. The first step is for digital signage companies to develop and publish privacy policies specifying what information they collect, on whom, and to what uses it is put. Digital signage companies and trade associations should publicly adopt comprehensive guidelines that explicitly forbid retaining personal data and that commit to providing consumers with notice when audience measurement devices are in operation.

However, privacy policies are always subject to change. Ultimately, baseline privacy legislation must be enacted for consumer protection laws to catch up to modern technology. Such legislation should include a prohibition against the use of personally-identifiable biometric data (such as facial features) for commercial purposes without the informed consent of the individual.

Some in the industry view proposals for privacy safeguards as premature because most digital signs don’t yet retain identifying data on individuals. However, it is naïve to expect that will always be the norm when mining consumer data is so profitable. The marketing business thrives on detailed audience information. There will be a greater push to identify individuals with digital signage as soon as it becomes more cost effective to do so.

Now is the time for digital signage privacy precisely because these audience measurement techniques are still somewhat new. It will be less difficult to build in privacy protections now than in the future, after companies are invested in the systems and intrusive marketing too entrenched to halt. Consumers and lawmakers need to speak up now, because a common standard for digital signage privacy is past due.

About

The Center for Democracy and Technology is a non-profit public interest organization working to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free. Harley Lorenz Geiger is part of the Staff Counsel at the CDT.


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Hercules holds a B.Comm Finance from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) level 3 candidate. He was previously a contributor at FiLife, a finance website owned by Dow Jones and IAC. Write to hercules@business2press.com
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  • Carter

    its definitely important for people to at least know where these things are….i mean what's next….

  • Carter

    its definitely important for people to at least know where these things are….i mean what's next….

  • Carter

    its definitely important for people to at least know where these things are….i mean what’s next….

  • Davey

    we really need to discus new media and its impacts on privacy, including this.

  • Davey

    we really need to discus new media and its impacts on privacy, including this.

  • Davey

    we really need to discus new media and its impacts on privacy, including this.

  • http://www.stungunmikes.com/ Mike Braddock

    Privacy is a big issue, but it can be complex. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/privacy/

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