Ads with Eyes

This post is from Harley Geiger, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. A more in depth introduction to digital signage can be found on the CDT blog, in two parts. Harley has kindly offered to lead a session on digital signage at Privacy Camp.

Television screens increasingly blaze in public spaces. In many settings, particularly at retail establishments, the TVs are perpetually tuned to a channel with nothing but commercials. In other instances, such as schools and government offices, the screens flash announcements and public safety information. This up-and-coming medium goes by different names, including captive audience networks, but the most common is digital signage.

Now, in a development with significant privacy implications, digital signage is slowly integrating identification technologies. The purpose is to boost audience measurement and exposure. The industry’s eventual wish is to target advertising to individual consumers based on demographics and shopping history.

Currently, most digital signs are just flat screens displayed in some trafficked area, playing a video loop. The contents of the video are often controlled via computer, enabling one master location to control thousands of connected units. However, from an advertiser’s perspective, a shortcoming of digital signage and billboards is the difficulty in determining who sees the display unit. This makes it difficult for advertisers or others to measure the size of the message’s audience and to target specific demographics within that audience. The industry’s solution appears to be teensy-weensy facial recognition cameras.

These cameras can calculate a passerby’s age, gender, and race, and also determine how long an individual stays hypnotized by the display. This data is stored in a central database. The advertisement on the screen can then change to match the consumer. A similar effect is also being achieved with other technologies, such as Bluetooth and radio frequency identification (RFID). Proctor and Gamble set up a system at German retailer Metro Extra in which RFID tags embedded in product packaging generate related ads on nearby digital signs. In 2007, French retailer Gedenim installed a system in which RFID-equipped loyalty cards prompt targeted advertisements on digital signage kiosks. This is similar to a system Sprint demonstrated at a trade show in 2004. Both the Sprint and Gedenim systems identify individual shoppers and tailor advertising to their shopping histories. Gedenim’s digital signage system was also scheduled sometime this year to display ads triggered by the presence of mobile phones.

At least some companies that operate these systems vow never to collect individually identifiable data or store and share any images. But there’s little reason to believe this will be the industry norm in years to come. The trade associations’ websites, (DSA , OVAB and POPAI ) mention nothing of substance about privacy. Interestingly, the famous advertising scenes (particularly this one and this one ) in the movie Minority Report are often referenced, almost as an industry benchmark.

Digital signage privacy isn’t a frontline issue right now because the medium has yet to mature. A recent Infotrends study indicates that there are about 630,000 displays at 97,000 locations in the U.S., and only a fraction of those include identification technology. The biggest barrier to growth is the high cost of entry, but the components are steadily decreasing in cost and size. This is a billion-dollar business that grew at an annual rate of 56% over three years, and Infotrends forecasts continued double-digit growth into 2011. And by then, surely, the technology of the day will make all sorts of spooky things possible.

There are no privacy standards for digital signage because the U.S., unlike many other nations, has no general consumer privacy law. Instead, our legal system has been dealing with privacy sector-by-sector, technology-by-technology. That may change this year if Congress heeds CDT’s call for comprehensive baseline federal privacy legislation.

However, just because there is no law on the books doesn’t mean that the digital signage industry can ignore privacy. Sooner or later, legislators will awaken to the issues posed by digital signage. Without delay, the industry should commit to responsible stewardship of consumers’ information. It will be less difficult and expensive to build in privacy protections now than in the future, after companies are heavily invested in the systems and ubiquitous intrusive marketing provokes a consumer backlash. Now is the time for digital signage firms and trade associations to develop privacy standards.

We are still some years away from a situation where consumers have nowhere to run or hide from an onslaught of advertising displays that call to them by name. However, it is clear that consumers will be increasingly entertained and persuaded by personalized digital media as they go through their daily routines, whether consumers want it or not. Now is the time to start considering the privacy issues, before they are dismissed as a “minority report.”


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About Privacy Camp

PrivacyCamp is an multi-city unconference about privacy focusing on government policy and social networking.


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