Comprehensive report on privacy in digital signage all but ruined by alarmist overtones

January 29, 2010 by Dave Haynes


The California-based World Privacy Forum has taken a deep dive on the privacy implications of digital signage networks, in a report by Pam Dixon called The One-Way-Mirror Society.

I have very mixed feelings about the report.

On one hand, it is a deep, pretty exhaustively researched look at the technologies, history, issues and general hoo-hah that sporadically bubbles up about audience metrics technologies sold by companies like CognoVision and Tru-Media. For someone looking to get up to speed on all this, the report is a solid piece of work.

On the other hand, it is thoughtful and reasonable in some sections, and flat-out alarmist to the point of goofiness in other sections.

Consider this key passage:

Digital signage is a privacy Chernobyl just waiting to happen, unless something is done quickly, and proactively. When customers realize how pervasive and how invasive this digital sign surveillance is, they will not like what they learn. Controls need to be put in place now, before this technology runs amok and becomes an entrenched problem that is too systemic to root out. 

Really? Chernobyl? Surveillance? Technology runs amok???

Good Lord. We are talking here about technology that advertising-based networks use to more efficiently try to figure out who and how many people are looking at the screens, when and for how long. The cameras are replacing people who had the crushingly dull job of standing in the same places with clickers and clipboards, counting people manually and tallying them up for reports that do the same thing.

If this report was a film it would be in grainy black and white and the narrator would sound like a deep-voiced Rod Serling. He’d speak in rapid fire, and seem really concerned.

These technologies are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the offline world, and there is little if any disclosure to consumers that information about behavioral and personal characteristics is being collected and analyzed to create highly targeted advertisements, among other things. In the most sophisticated digital sign networks, for example, individuals watching a video screen will be shown different information based on their age bracket, gender, or ethnicity. 

OK, maybe I’m naive. But I profoundly don’t care if some audience-counting camera figures out I am a 52-year-old guy and not a 17-year-old girl, and serves me up a marketing message that’s a little more tailored to my interests. Maybe I am slightly happier that the screen is pushing a smartphone ad on me instead of one for a text-tastic pink slider-flip thing?

Is that sort of thing really keeping anyone … ANYONE … up at night? 

There is, of course, the obligatory reference to Minority Report. There are lots of loaded words and phrases here and there like “secretive” and innocent-looking” and “unrestrained.” And loopy assertions.

The unfortunate part is that all this nonsense taints what is, on balance, a pretty useful document. The author cites some cases – like a campaign briefly run by Castrol in the UK last year, where cameras were used to capture the plates on vehicles approaching a big LED billboard and ran databases to come up with near instant oil recommendations for each car. Problem is they displayed the plates of all the cars on the LED board.

Dumb. Bad. Wrong. It lasted four days before the motor vehicles people went after the people behind the campaign.

Good example of why there do need to be some standards, and regulations. The industry is doing a pretty good job of regulating itself, but I get that just trusting advertising-driven companies to behave properly is maybe not the best idea.

The report makes a series of recommendations, most of which are reasonable enough:

• Better notice and disclosure to consumers

• No one-sided industry self regulation

• No price or other unfair discrimination

• The full set of Fair Information Practices must apply for compiled information

• Notice given to consumers about subpoenas for their information

• Prohibitions on digital signage in bathrooms, health facilities, etc.

• More robust consumer choices regarding data capture and use from signage

• Special rules for collection and use of pictures and information about children 

The report does a nice job explaining and showing the technology, and even makes references to the evil guys at MarketPlace Station who are sorting out screen dwell times and genders at some Canadian Whole Foods stores. There’s a photo of Haroon Mirza from CognoVisioon looking at one of his cameras. It shows how heat mapping works and taps CRI’s Laura Davis-Taylor for her shopping behavior insights.

What really doesn’t get talked about in the report is how this stuff is being applied not to invade privacy but do a better job of analyzing what’s going in stores and other places, and tuning the experience to those dynamics and demographics.

Technology gets to be the bogeyman for possibly tailoring ads or offers based on gender and, horrors, ethnicity. Does anyone actually believe that sort of profiling doesn’t enter into virtually every sales and shopper exchange that happens in retail every day. The sales associate sizes up the customer on first sight and things go from there.

I could go on, but’s it’s late … 

If privacy advocates really want an industry to work with them to safeguard the citizenry, does it make sense to pretty much condemn its people as being secretive and toxic? Would it not make a little more sense to say, as some other privacy advocates have done, that “we realize just about everyone in your sector is using this technology only to better understand their audiences, and that the technology is just an evolution of audience research that’s been done in varied ways for decades. However, not everyone’s motives will be as straight-forward and innocuous as yours, so let’s all work to develop some safeguards.”

But why be reasoned when you can make more noise and get more attention by driving an agenda and making the whole thing seem sinister and damn-near nightmarish? Chernobyl???

Dixon is the executive director of the forum, a small not-for-profit research group in California. Undoubtedly, the forum does some very good work. But the silly, over the top tone of some of the passages in this thing pretty much taint this good intentions of it.

It’s a free download. make up your own mind, and do comment. 

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