NY Times has a gaze at face-tracking "controversy"

May 31, 2008 by Dave Haynes

Maybe I’m naive, but the whole fuss that seems to be bubbling up about face tracking technology for digital billboards and screens has that much ado about nothing feel to it.

As an old newspaper editor I have too many times been in slow news day planning meetings that ended up with reporters being sent out to find people who were upset with something or other, often people who weren’t terribly well informed on the issue of the day or who had all of 10 seconds to develop an opinion.

Now the New York Times has smarter people than the papers I worked for — they hired me, so they were obviously damaged souls — but they nonetheless sent out a reporter and did a piece that really reaches to drum up a fuss.

Saturday’s edition has a story headlined “Billboards that look back” – which starts with a set-up of how the out of home industry is experimenting with biometric face-tracking technology that can count and even demographically segment faces.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a Quividi camera was installed on a billboard on Eighth Avenue near Columbus Circle in Manhattan that was playing a trailer for “The Andromeda Strain,” a mini-series on the cable channel A&E.

“I didn’t see that at all, to be honest,” said Sam Cocks, a 26-year-old lawyer, when the camera was pointed out to him by a reporter. “That’s disturbing. I would say it’s arguably an invasion of one’s privacy.”

Organized privacy groups agree, though so far the practice of monitoring billboards is too new and minimal to have drawn much opposition. But the placement of surreptitious cameras in public places has been a flashpoint in London, where cameras are used to look for terrorists, as well as in Lower Manhattan, where there is a similar initiative.

Although surveillance cameras have become commonplace in banks, stores and office buildings, their presence takes on a different meaning when they are meant to sell products rather than fight crime. So while the billboard technology may solve a problem for advertisers, it may also stumble over issues of public acceptance.

“I guess one would expect that if you go into a closed store, it’s very likely you’d be under surveillance, but out here on the street?” Mr. Cocks asked. At the least, he said, there should be a sign alerting people to the camera and its purpose.


OK, so first of all companies like Quividi, TruMedia, CognoVision and Video Mining don’t capture faces and record them. The software just uses little cameras to count faces that engage with a screen and then try to sort out demographics like age and gender, and eventually very general ethnicity. The images are not stored and the guys who run these companies uniformly say they don’t want to do that.

The surveillance cameras in public areas are completely different animals and the linkage between the two is at best tenuous.

The story floats the idea that a government could push a court order to force a switch to start storing recorded faces, but that’s a lot more than flicking a switch. It’s re-engineering the products, adding MUCH more bandwidth, and probably changing the gear at each location to actually pull that off.

This versus using surveillance gear already in place in many or most retail and public environments.

If people are going to get jumpy about the privacy issue of a little gadget sorting out if you are looking at a screen or not, and vaguely capturing your demographics, then I guess they have troubled lives. How do they react when there are people in stores with clipboards counting people and watching what they do?

There are also other widely used devices that can be used to track where you go and what you do. They’re called credit cards and cell phones, to name just a couple.

Leave a comment