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Privacy & Data

Ads With Eyes

Digital advertising displays with the ability to collect information about consumers are proliferating in stores, airports and public places. It is time for the companies involved to pay attention to privacy.

The digital signage industry is aggressively pushing for ways to track consumers. By using facial recognition cameras and other devices, the industry seeks to measure viewership and to tailor ad content to consumers’ profiles. Tens of millions of people have already been exposed. But in its eagerness to learn about its audience, the digital signage industry is deploying invasive technologies without adequate privacy protections. Only a few of the companies even have published privacy policies and those that exist are pretty bare-bones. Currently, none of the digital signage trade associations has published privacy policies related to tracking technology.

(What is digital signage? Please see my earlier post, Digital Wallpaper.)

Digital signage companies are tracking consumers in a number of ways. The most common method may be itsy-bitsy cameras hidden in the signs that record the age, race, and gender of passersby. Other companies use Bluetooth or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Some are also using consumers’ mobile phones to trigger ads; the signage system can then deliver coupons to the phones. All of these technologies have the potential to identify individual consumers and gather personal data about them, without giving consumers any choice in the matter.

To their credit, some digital signage firms have privacy policies published on their websites, such as TruMedia and Quividi. According to their policies, these companies do not personally identify shoppers or store any of the images they pick up through their facial recognition cameras. It is worth noting, though, that Quividi’s demo video clearly features stored images of shoppers.

Most other digital signage firms currently say nothing about consumer privacy or what they do with the data they collect. One such example is Studio IMC, whose signs hang in Times Square and are equipped with facial recognition cameras. Another example is BlueFire Digital, which combines digital signage with Bluetooth and mobile marketing, but has no publicly available privacy policy.

Likewise, the digital signage trade associations, like OVAB, DSA, and POPAI, tout the usefulness of such tracking technology because it has the potential to increase the industry’s profits. But none of the associations currently appear to recommend privacy safeguards to vendors that track consumers.

That should change. Digital signage firms should adopt and publish privacy policies based on Fair Information Practices that specify what information they collect, on whom, and to what uses it is put. The policies should be updated whenever a firm’s practices change. The policies should also include provisions that allow consumers to opt-in to digital signage marketing that uses the more intrusive tracking methods, such as mobile phones and RFID.

But a privacy policy alone is not enough if consumers don’t know what a particular digital sign is doing. Consumers ought to be notified when billboards and signs are recording information or images about them. Digital signage vendors should include a notice on signs equipped with tracking technology, such as "Audience reaction is being recorded by TruMedia."

Part of the reason why there are no privacy standards for digital signage is because the U.S., unlike many other nations, has no general consumer privacy law. Instead, our legal system has been dealing with privacy sector-by-sector, technology-by-technology. That may change this year if Congress heeds CDT’s call for comprehensive baseline federal privacy legislation.

However, just because there is no law on the books doesn’t mean that the digital signage industry can ignore privacy. Sooner or later, legislators will awaken to the issues posed by digital signage. Without delay, the industry should commit to responsible stewardship of consumers’ information. It will be less difficult and expensive to build in privacy protections now than in the future, after companies are heavily invested in the systems and ubiquitous intrusive marketing provokes a consumer backlash. Now is the time for digital signage firms and trade associations to develop privacy standards.