Q and A: Privacy expert on the DSF’s new digital signage guidelines

The two key people behind the Digital Signage Federation’s privacy standards released late last week were Ken Goldberg, CEO of Real Digital Media, who chaired the eight-person committee, and Harley Geiger, a committee member and Policy Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Geiger has written and commented extensively on privacy as it relates to this sector, and was described as the driving force behind policies intended to safeguard consumer privacy and preserve the public’s trust in the digital signage industry.

Ken writes a blog and will no doubt post some of his thoughts when he finds the time, so I asked Geiger if he’d take some time to respond to a few questions about the recommendations.

Q: How do you think these recommendations will be received by the vendors and network operators who use technology such as audience counting?

Geiger: Most likely, the reaction of vendors and network operators to the DSF Digital Signage Privacy Standards will be mixed – and understandably so. It’s certainly not easy for companies to incorporate a comprehensive set of privacy principles into a business model. Please don’t think that we are making light of the effort it will take to implement the Privacy Standards. We do, however, think the effort will be well worth it in the long run.

The digital signage industry is clearly moving in the direction of more widespread use of consumer identification and interactivity technologies. Yet companies and consumers continue to have deep reservations about using these technologies due to privacy issues. (For a recent example, check out the comments to this article on a Kraft/Intel system that “anonymously” picks up consumer demographics.) Companies are right to be wary of how consumers will react. Consumers have consistently objected to behavioral marketing, even when it is “anonymous,” and especially if it is done in secret. In the online advertising context, consumer outcry over privacy has led to heavy government pressure on advertisers to adopt and enforce self-regulatory guidelines.

As I’ve said before, privacy can be an enabler for the digital signage industry, not an impediment. Companies want to preserve good relationships with consumers, and consumers want to know their personal information is protected and that digital signage companies are being open with them. The DSF Privacy Standards are designed to serve both of these interests.

Q: The committee recommends shoppers be advised that technology is going to estimate their age and gender in order to make advertisements more relevant to them. Using that logic, why not put up a sign that says: “Everything in this store – the signs, the packaging, the paint, the music, everything – is designed to make you buy more stuff.” What privacy is actually being invaded by anonymously counting faces?

Geiger: First, the Digital Signage Privacy Standards cover digital signage, not music or packaging or the many other ways stores encourage consumers to make purchases. Second, the notice you suggest is actually not transparent at all. Consumers may expect that “everything” in the store is designed to encourage purchases. However, consumers’ concept of “everything” does not yet include digital signage using facial recognition cameras. Therefore, a sign like the one you suggest, or “This premises under video surveillance,” does not provide consumers with meaningful notice that digital signage data collection is actually going on. While companies will word their notices in their own way, the notice ought to be a sincere attempt to alert consumers that this specific type of data collection is underway.

I’m going to combine the rest of this question with the next one, because they ask similar things.

Q: I thoroughly understand the need to safeguard personal information on any devices that require the input of personal information and things like logins, but I can’t help thinking notifications about something as innocuous as face-counting just incites people to have an issue. Again, it seems similar to signs that might say, “We have very few of the items we advertised in the newspaper actually in stock, but please stay and buy other items.” Why is notice needed?

Geiger: The DSF Privacy Standards certainly do not guarantee that consumers won’t take issue with this type of technology. But what will incite consumers much more is to feel as if though they are being spied on in secret – even if the company is merely using a camera to record demographics. Again, a clear majority of consumers consistently object to “anonymous” tracking for marketing purposes.

As the digital signage industry continues to use cameras and sensors to gather consumer information, it is inevitable that consumers will become more aware of the practice. If companies are trying to hide the fact that they are collecting data, it will sensationalize the issue and lead consumers to more deeply distrust digital signage. Secrecy magnifies consumers’ sense that their privacy is being invaded.

A notice enables digital signage companies to demonstrate to consumers that they are forthcoming about data collection. It gives companies the opportunity to explain that no directly identifiable information is collected – or that any collected information is well protected. Notice boosts consumers’ comfort level with the technology and also enables consumers to better protect their privacy – consumers who strongly object to digital signage data collection can avoid areas where it takes place. If consumers object to “anonymous” tracking done in secret, then being transparent simply is the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint.

Finally, I would point out that online marketers are starting to provide more notice to consumers on the advertisements themselves – even when those advertisements are based on demographics and interests and not directly identifiable information.

Q: My guess is most companies using any technology that raises privacy issues will merrily put up privacy statements on the back 40s of their websites, but how do you envision getting the Digital OOH companies using video face counting on board with on-site and even on-screen notices?

Geiger: I envision encouraging companies to use a notice by doing the same thing I’m doing right now: explaining why it is in the interests of both the industry and consumers. The Digital Signage Privacy Standards are voluntary and digital signage companies are not being forced to abide by them. However, implementing the full set of Privacy Standards is strongly recommended based on the history of how the online behavioral advertising industry has dealt with consumer privacy – please see the next question.

Q: Have other technology industries that have faced privacy issues been good at setting standards and policing themselves?

Geiger: I think the closest analogy is the online behavioral advertising industry. And here the answer to your question is “no.”

Generally speaking, online behavioral advertisers operated for years without good privacy policies and largely in secret from consumers. But a backlash over consumer privacy grew as the public inevitably became more aware of online tracking. This focused government attention on online behavioral advertising as a problem, prompting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress to propose industry regulations. Under pressure from the FTC, online advertising trade associations developed self-regulatory guidelines, but few companies actually adopted the guidelines. Again under FTC pressure, the trade associations are now stepping up enforcement of the guidelines among their members. It remains to be seen whether this push for self-regulation will be successful, but the FTC Chairman explicitly warned that this was the industry’s “last clear chance to show that self-regulation can – and will – effectively protect consumers’ privacy” in the absence of formal government regulations or legislation.

(The Center for Democracy and Technology is a non-profit public interest organization working to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free. As a civil liberties group with expertise in law, technology, and policy, CDT works to enhance free expression and privacy in communications technologies by finding practical and innovative solutions to public policy challenges while protecting civil liberties. CDT is dedicated to building consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.)

Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes

Editor/Founder at Sixteen:Nine
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of the Sixteen:Nine blog. He is a well-known figure in the digital signage and Digital Out Of Home sectors and runs a pair of companies, The Preset Group and pressDOOH.
Dave Haynes


Long-running blog about digital signage, DOOH and emerging media, by industry consultant and shit-disturber Dave Haynes
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  • Reply February 7, 2011

    Raji Kalra

    Hey Harley, although I agree with most of your thoughts in principle, I don’t think you have ever got your hands dirty and faced the challenges digital signage network operators go through on a day-to-day basis? I am not talking about the technology, which is a large part of the battle, but managing the on-screen programming that has to stay fresh…and for many networks needs to be monetized by advertising in order to survive.

    I am not sure if you have also have ever sold advertising, to the extent that it is the difference whether you take home a paycheck or not?

    In today’s landscape of “digital advertising”, and especially true for DOOH network operators, the ability to obtain and share metrics with advertisers is key to keeping them aboard. I am not talking about giving them identifiable data on consumers, but rather answering the burning question on whether consumers are even watching their screens or not? From those that are watching, what is the peak time of day for viewership? And most importantly, what content elements are causing the most viewership? Is their campaign working or not?

    The beautiful part of technology is that allows humans to become more efficient…and this is definitely true of measurement software such as AVA (Anonymous Video Analytics) that helps DOOH operators get this kind of data cost-effectively and in real-time. By understanding that privacy is really kept in tact, it measures all pertinent information that advertisers really want to know … at a fraction of the cost of hiring people to manually check the number of consumers that might be watching the screens with clip-boards and pens everyday.

    Technology is about moving forward and embracing the efficiencies it helps humans and businesses achieve. Right now with majority of DOOH networks are using different measurement approaches and there really is no standard for our industry.

    YES, I do believe in your thoughts on the subject on privacy, but lets please move forward instead of just spinning our wheels. Have you ever even used AVA and understood whether privacy is actually kept in tact or not? And I don’t mean getting a “demo” from a tradeshow….I mean really use it and understand its ability to play a fundamental role for DOOH network operators across the world.

  • Reply February 7, 2011


    Thanks for your comment, Raji. I’m not clear on whether you actually read the Privacy Standards. Nothing in the guidelines prohibits the use of anonymous video analytics. Instead, the Privacy Standards recommend that companies collecting data “anonymously” provide some basic information to consumers (via notice and a privacy policy) and be open to consumer feedback. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate to customers that your system, as you say, keeps privacy intact.

    I don’t think it’s entirely relevant, but you are correct that I am not in marketing. My profession is technology policy and law. However, you should also know that the Privacy Standards were reviewed, voted upon and approved by the DSF Standards Committee – which is comprised of digital signage industry figures.

    I’ve stated many times that I appreciate the value that identification and interactivity technologies can bring to digital signage. However, the use of those technologies should come at the expense of industry transparency or consumer privacy, choice and trust. I’m glad you agree in principle, and I agree with you that implementation of the standards will not be easy. But, thinking long term, the effort will be worth it for both the industry and for consumers.

  • Reply February 7, 2011

    Ken Goldberg


    The committee that developed and ratified the Privacy Standard includes some folks with hands that have gotten pretty dirty in this business even by your standards. So to make some kind of ad hominem attack on Harley Geiger based on his profession is silly and debases your argument. I thought Harley’s answer was perfectly apt, and I would not have much to add to it other than reiterating the fact that the policy is voluntary and that the key principle of transparency strengthens the level of consumer trust.

    This it is not an anti-technology policy: blind trust in the capabilities of technology and the altruistic motives of the technology owners is not a path most people want to follow. Clear willingness to communicate usage, purpose and the opportunity to opt out is only good business practice that will pay benefits in the long run. But all good practices are optional, which is why not all businesses are equal.

  • Reply February 8, 2011


    Harley/Ken, as I mentioned before I Do agree with your thoughts on privacy. I did read the privacy standards document you both published, and can only applaud your efforts for taking the time to do so…and being pro-active for the DOOH industry.

    The only thing that I do want to stress is that alarms go off with consumers (as seen in the Intel/Kraft comments) every time the term “facial recognition” is used. I feel AVA is positioned too much of a “futuristic technology” with “big brother” implications. Not to forget the bundled “Minority Report” references that are used whenever possible.

    To me, based on my experience, AVA is simply a measurement solution for DOOH networks. “Measurement” being the key word. It measures the effectiveness DOOH displays, similarly to how marketers have been trying to “measure” the retail environments for years right down to individual aisles and end-caps so they too can have their own metric…under the “philosophy” that the store itself is a medium.

    Wasn’t it only a couple of years ago (2006/207) that two major retail organizations being the In-Store Marketing Institute and POPAI set out to measure and create their own global metrics around shopper traffic and marketing across the retail environments by day-parts and demographics? These initiatives were backed by some of the biggest retailers, agencies and brands in the world, and used measurement tools such as clickers in the aisles to identify and count the number of consumers that entered a specific location of the retail environment, such as an aisle, during the pilot phase.

    You can read more about that initiative here:

    All I am saying is that if measurement and metrics are so important to marketers, then AVA should seen in a positive manner, not negative, especially if privacy is indeed being kept in tact. I DO agree that network operators should be pro-active to identify their use of such “measuring”, but to the extent it doesn’t cause too much alarms across the industry or misconceptions by consumers that read about it in write-ups where the term “facial recognition” is loosely being thrown around.

  • Reply February 8, 2011

    Ken Goldberg


    I hear you, and AVA can be used both for measurement and facial recognition. A watch manufacturer has had success using AVA to identify men vs. women and presenting the appropriate line of watches on a kiosk based upon that. As described, it sounds anonymous and amounts to simple gender identification resulting in a better experience.

    All we are suggesting is that the consumer is made aware that the cameras (which are obvious to most people) are being used to gather anonymous measurement data and to identify the right merchandise to suggest. No data is stored and no personally identifiable data is linked, used or stored. While it feels uncomfortable to say all that stuff, perhaps because no one ever has, it will pay benefits in the long run. Instead of assuming that “Minority Report” activities are going on, they can feel secure that the network owner has a privacy policy, a web site and standards, as opposed to who-knows-what behind those lenses. If we work together as an industry to promote anonymous measurement technologies and their benefits, everyone wins. Keeping it a mystery only makes people wonder, or worse to improperly invoke “Minority Report”. We are on the same side, and I thank you for your input!

  • Reply February 9, 2011

    Raji Kalra

    I like you Ken. Good debating. I get it.

    By the way the watch company was Movado. A colleague and myself sold it to them back in 2007.

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