Advocacy group calls out DS industry on face counting practices; gets Minority Report into opening argument (yawn)

July 14, 2009 by Dave Haynes


Whenever I see a Minority Report reference about digital signage my eyes start rolling up north of my brow, as I get set for another story about either nightmare scenario of super-smart ads everywhere or the whiz-bangery of Tom Cruise sliding files around by flapping his arms, because a mouse is so damned hard to use.

Anyway, my eyes were starting their journey north when I started reading a CBS News opinion piece about biometric audience counting technology being used by digital signage networks, and raising privacy questions.

The piece is by an advocacy group, and while there is a slight and predictably alarmist tone to it, the piece on balance is quite reasonable in suggesting this whole thing should get talked about now, while deployments are rare and the technology is still fairly pedestrian in what it can do.

Facial recognition, RFID and mobile phone tracking are powerful tools that should be matched by business practices that protect consumer privacy, writes Harley Geiger, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. All of these technologies have the capacity to identify individuals and gather personal data about them, though it remains unclear the extent to which the digital signage industry is using that capacity. Indeed, that is the problem. 

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

Moreover, digital signage company representatives have refused to identity the locations of these 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 consumers’ personal information and that commit to providing consumers with notice when audience measurement devices are in operation. 

However, companies’ privacy policies are subject to change at any time. Ultimately, baseline privacy legislation must be enacted for there to be any hope that consumer protection laws will 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 consumer. 

Some in the industry are likely to view proposals for privacy safeguards as premature because most digital signs don’t yet retain images or identifying data on individuals. However, it is naïve to expect that will always be the norm when mining consumer data is so very profitable. The marketing business thrives on detailed audience information for tailored advertising. Indeed, the industry already acknowledges audience profiling as the key to its future success. 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 heavily invested in the systems and intrusive marketing too entrenched to halt. While an increase in spying-for-profit is inevitable in the age of digital marketing, the digital signage industry will be doing the public a grave disservice if this fancy new advertising medium becomes just another mass surveillance system with poor data management practices. Consumers and lawmakers need to speak up now, because a common standard for digital signage privacy is past due.   

There’s a case, I think, to be made for establishing some standards across the companies who are marketing this technology. The ones I know are pretty clear that they capture data and then discard it. They count male/female and over time hope to get good at sorting out age groups, spitting it out in detailed analytics reports. Making it clear and agreeing where the line is drawn is probably a good move, and maybe that sort of discussion is already happening.

My friends at Cognovision, for example, already publish a pretty clear privacy policy:

For privacy purposes, the AIM system is designed to ensure that the data detected and aggregated cannot be associated or otherwise linked with any specific individual. No personally identifiable information is ever collected, as our system ensures only anonymous data is aggregated. 

Trumedia has a section on privacy and I suspect if I looked enough I would find it in Quvidi’s material. 

It’s a big leap to imagine the guys running the network for the Kwikee Marts across Ohio to start mapping face capture data against a database of photos they got … somewhere??? … to figure out some guy is in for the third time this week buying a pack of smokes.

Even with agreement amongst the major vendors, however, there would likely be other companies who will do their own thing, as I gather biometric software is pretty easily and cheaply acquired (the much harder part is doing the analytics piece).

I really struggle to get upset about advertisers and retailers trying to understand their audience and customers, and can only smirk at the advocacy group’s assertion that the DS industry admits audience profiling is a key to future success. As we all know broadcast, print, online and outdoor place no importance on audience measurement or segmentation, and never do research and never have people waatching what you do.


The whole Big Brother thing just rings a little hollow, as there are already countless ways brands, retailers, credit card companies, PayPals and banks can determine shopping and buying patterns. Right now, these face counting systems are just trying to sort out how many people are looking at screens and for how long, and maybe go as deep as which ads seems to get more eyeballs. How this turns into a mass surveillance system I’m not sure, but I can’t argue with the premise of at least talking about it and setting some guidelines (hard as it may be to get everyone adhering to them).

I get less concerned, I suppose, up here among the polar bears and igloos of Toronto because our government could never get its act together to do anything with the data. Ask us how well the gun control and do-not-call telemarketing registries have worked, billions of dollars later!

South of us, well, that’s a different story.  

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