Privacy Standards For The TV That Is Watching You

Digital screens that can gather information about consumers are growing more common in stores and other public places. In response to privacy concerns, trade associations have issued privacy standards. Will they be enough?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Harley Geiger, Policy Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a non-profit public interest organization based in Washington, DC. With expertise in law, technology, and policy, CDT’s mission is to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free. Geiger wrote a paper on digital signage privacy standards for CDT and worked with Digital Signage Federation to adapt the paper into their guidelines.

All too often, it is only after public uproar that companies see the value of privacy and adopt safeguards that should have been present in the first place. For industries seeking to grow in visibility and to attract and retain customers, it is not helpful to be burdened with a reputation for being intrusive or creepy. Consumer mistrust can last long after any public outcry fades. The digital signage industry just took a critical step in the other direction, adopting privacy rules before large-scale controversy.

The Digital Signage Federation, a major industry trade association, announced last week that it is adopting a comprehensive set of digital signage privacy standards for its member companies and their affiliates. The move comes as identification technologies are gaining traction within the digital signage industry. The digital signage trade associations are showing considerable prudence in adopting the standards now, rather than after a backlash over privacy. However, as digital signage transforms the media landscape, it remains to be seen whether the voluntary standards will be enough. That is up to the individual companies deploying and using the technology.

Why Privacy Matters To Digital Signage

The simplest, most common form of digital signage is a flat screen television in a public place playing a loop of advertisements. Digital signage is popping up everywhere: retail stores, doctor’s offices, gas stations, restaurants, gyms, airports, train stations, taxis. The advertising medium has expanded into a multibillion-dollar business and has continued to grow relatively rapidly through the economic downturn of the past several years.

Digital signage is now integrating identification technologies‚ such as tiny facial recognition cameras‚ in order to measure viewership more accurately and to tailor advertisements to match audiences. As a consumer draws near to the screen, the camera can record the consumer‚ demographics (age, gender, etc.) and the screen runs an ad to match the consumer’s profile. Facial recognition is the most common targeting method, but other digital signage systems use radio frequency identification, Bluetooth and social networking. Most systems do not record individual identities at present, but there is little barrier to individual identification and profiling in the future. Although somewhat cliché in the digital signage industry, the famous advertising scenes from the movie “Minority Report” are the clearest dramatization of what this medium may ultimately be capable of doing.

Despite the potential of such technologies to improve ad targeting, both consumers and industry figures have expressed deep misgivings over privacy issues. At least one digital signage project involving license plate scanners on a busy UK highway‚ was scrapped due to public outrage and possible violation of UK privacy laws. Meanwhile news articles on digital signage surveillance have started to mount. Digital signage companies want to avoid alienating consumers and their advertising clients, as well as the possibility of reactive government regulation that could stifle innovation. Consumers don’t want digital signage to spy on them in secret or against their will whenever they leave their homes.

Forward-Looking Privacy Standards

In an effort to stay ahead of the issue, two digital signage trade associations‚ Point Of Purchase Advertising International (POPAI) and, most recently, the Digital Signage Federation (DSF)‚ have issued voluntary privacy standards to provide companies with concrete ways to incorporate privacy protections into their businesses. Both sets of standards are detailed and quite strong from a consumer privacy perspective. The DSF Digital Signage Privacy Standards are drawn from a paper I wrote for the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) in 2009, and I worked closely with DSF to develop the standards.

Under the privacy standards of both POPAI and DSF, companies would be required to obtain consumers opt-in consent before collecting directly identifiable information through digital signage. Companies would also be required to provide notice of any ongoing data collection in the physical location in which digital signage units operate‚ like a sign at the entrance of a supermarket‚ even if the system collects only “anonymous” data. Companies are prohibited from collecting information on minors under 13 (or as defined by state law) through digital signage. The DSF standards apply not only to digital signage member companies, but also to their partners, subcontractors, and the owners of establishments in which digital signage is located.

The digital signage industry deserves credit for its foresight on consumer privacy. POPAI and DSF not only released privacy standards that are strong, but did so in the absence of a major public scandal or government wrath. In contrast, the major online behavioral advertising trade associations only issued self-regulatory guidelines under pressure from government regulators and after widespread controversy over their business practices. If companies follow the DSF and POPAI digital signage privacy standards, “Minority Report” will not be our future‚ unless consumers expressly consent to it.

Company Adoption Is Key To Success

Although the privacy standards are a great step forward for the digital signage industry, standards alone do not protect consumers. The standards are voluntary and‚ as we saw with the online behavioral advertising industry‚ self-regulation does not have a strong track record. The next important step is for individual companies to actually integrate privacy protections into their business practices. Then there‚ the issue of watching the watchers‚ verifying that companies are providing the protections they have committed to and not just paying lip service to privacy while flouting consumer trust behind the scenes.

These remaining goals will not be easy to achieve, especially without an independent industry body dedicated to verifying compliance with the guidelines. But meeting the challenge is important for the ongoing viability of this medium as well as for the future of consumer privacy. The digital signage trade associations have taken action towards protecting consumer privacy, but it is now largely up to the individual companies associated with this new technology to make the effort successful.


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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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  • http://www.adserve.com.au AdServe Digital Signage

    I knew it had to happen soon.. maybe they are pushing it too far and now will bring regulations down on us

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