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

February 5, 2011 by Dave Haynes

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.)

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