Another run at the whole face-tracking, invasion of privacy thing

September 11, 2009 by Dave Haynes

There’s another piece out taking a look at the concerns and ramifications of the increasing use of biometric audience counting technologies in digital out of home networks, this time on Digital Signage Expo’s news portal.
It’s a good, balanced piece that takes very little of the alarmist tone from others I have read here and there in the past, and is by the same guy, Harley Geiger, who did a piece for the CBS News website a few weeks back. I wrote about that piece and it is referenced in this new article. I’m not sure I condemned privacy concerns, as suggested, but whatever …
Geiger suggests all companies using the technology, not just the vendors, should be upfront about what they are doing: 
A published privacy policy is an important move, but companies should take other steps as well. Consumers should be notified when digital signage units are using measurement and identification technologies. When faced with the question directly, however, digital signage operators have refused to identify which particular units use facial recognition in at least two separate instances. This lack of transparency will bolster the view that audience measurement tools are invasive. Companies that attempt to conceal their practices are asking for trouble.

Other privacy safeguards will have to depend on the particular technology, what consumer information the unit collects, and the context of its use. While an opt-out might be sufficient minimum protection for anonymous facial recognition data reported in aggregate, an opt-in is more appropriate for any technology that can uniquely identify individuals or their property, such as RFID or mobile marketing. Digital signage companies gathering consumer information in healthcare settings or financial institutions should be aware of how this practice relates to state and federal laws on medical and financial privacy.

By adopting strong privacy protections early on, the digital signage industry can help avoid consumer distrust, the ire of regulators, and the embarrassment of advertisers. It will be cheaper for the industry to integrate privacy into business practices now than it will be to retrofit privacy protections onto existing systems. There’s also the matter of consumer trust: it’s far easier to keep than to win back.
Because his arguments are more level-headed than a lot of the things that have been written by others, I am starting to get won over by the core argument here that while what’s going on now is indeed pretty pedestrian, the capabilities and applications for this technology keep getting deeper and broader. I don’t agree with the assertion that companies need to notify consumers that they are simply being counted, but I am more concerned about some of the capabiltiies being detailed in the UK Wired article that Geiger references.
I could care less that a little camera tracks that I looked at a screen in a mall for seven seconds. I would be more than a little irked if the screen flashed, “Hey Dave, good to see you again. Did that tube of Preparation H get it done for you?”  

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