Targeted billboard ads are a privacy nightmare
Advertisers use information gained from targeted digital advertising and apply it to create physical billboards capable of delivering personalized advertisements tailored to the types of people viewing them. If this concept sounds oddly familiar, it’s because it’s precisely the type of targeted physical advertising vision that Tom Cruise encounters when he strolls through a mall in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi hit, The minority report.
These targeted billboards, which have been around for several years but are growing in popularity, are the subject of a new report from the UK, backed civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. The report, aptly titled “The Streets are Watching”, provides an in-depth analysis of the ways a handful of companies use facial recognition-enabled billboards to analyze the world around them, then use that data to offer personalized advertisements to pedestrians. Although advertisers favor the practice for its effectiveness, the report argues that the massive collection of user data poses an inherent privacy concern with high-stakes risks. If normalized, the authors warn targeted billboards threaten to obliterate the idea of walking through a crowd anonymously.
“We’ve discovered new ways to track the movements and behaviors of millions of people to target us with ads on the streets, resulting in some of the most intrusive ad surveillance we’ve ever seen in the UK” , said Jake Hurfurt, Big Brother. Watch’s head of research and investigations said in a statement.
The report claims that advertisers can analyze pedestrians based on their precise GPS location, gender and age, and behavioral data, such as how they interact with certain apps, to create personalized advertiser profiles. Although sophisticated targeted advertising on mobile phones has become the de facto standard of modern life, advertisers want to apply this same framework to physical billboards.
“These invasive profiling techniques have been used for years to deliver targeted advertising on the Internet and on mobile phones,” Big Brother Watch said in a statement. Press release. “Now they decide what ads people see as they walk down the main street. Intrusive internet advertising has spilled over off screen and into the real world.”
The report takes an in-depth look at a handful of companies creating digital billboards with high-quality cameras capable of detecting human faces. Some of these companies, the report notes, use facial recognition software to determine demographic and even emotional details of users in front of users watching content. In other cases, facial recognition can be used to determine whether or not a viewer is actively viewing a certain advertisement.
In recent years, Big Brother Watch claims that billboard facial recognition technology has been used in advertising campaigns for the emoji film, an anti-suicide charity, a Royal Navy recruiting campaign and for a prostate cancer awareness organisation, among other cases. Other billboards in busy pedestrian areas would alter their advertisements based on the perceived emotional state and gender composition of passing crowds. Most people, all this time, don’t know they’ve been scanned.
“Walking the world with the feeling that cameras are not just recording video, but analyzing you as a person to shape your reality is an uncomfortable concept,” the report says. “This data is collected not only to determine whether an advertising campaign was successful, but to change the way people experience reality without their explicit consent, all with the goal of making more sales.”
These types of face scanning tools, although more precise than they were several years ago, are still far from perfect, especially when used outside of highly controlled test environments. Innumerable studies showed that these inaccuracies are magnified for non-white people. These inaccuracies in demographic profiling, the report notes, can potentially reinforce stereotypes and lead to awkward and embarrassing encounters if a system serves an ad based on an incorrect profile.
ALFI, one of the companies highlighted in the report, is reportedly selling advertisers a “plug and play” computer vision tool that uses an algorithm to analyze “the little facial cues and perceptual details that make potential customers a good candidate for a particular product”. The company’s product, according to the report, claims to be compatible with many major digital billboards in the market. Last year the company would have provided Uber and Lyft drivers with approximately 10,000 tablets equipped with facial recognition in an effort to serve passengers with personalized advertisements. This slide in transportation services has drawn criticism from prominent activists and lawmakers like the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar who writes letters to Uber and Lyft expressing privacy concerns.
ALFI did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
The report goes on to highlight two prominent UK billboard owners, Ocean Outdoor and Clear Channel, who both allegedly used facial scanning technology from a French company called Quividi. This company claims that its products can detect gender, age within five years, up to 100 faces in a crowd at the same time, and the time a person spends looking at a display screen. Quividi, according to the report, can “see you coming” and then adjusts its ads at the right time.
In an email sent to Gizmodo, a Quividi Spokesperson tok problem with the reports characterizing the company as a surveillance company and said it has always operated responsibly.
“We are not saying, like many of our competitors, that we do not process personal data and as such are not affected by GDPR,” the spokesperson said. “The vast majority of privacy authorities around the world consider processing an image with someone’s face to be processing personal data. As such we fall under the GDPR [The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation] (and GDPR-like legislation).
Quividi’s spokesperson went on to say that its technology cannot identify individuals, “neither in absolute terms (complete identity) nor in terms of repeated exposure.” The company said the distinction means its technology should be described as “face detection” rather than “facial recognition”.
Big Brother Watch shines a light on fundamental issues with “general consent” once relegated primarily to digital ecosystems. Today, with the rise of digital billboards, these same concerns increasingly apply to pedestrians just trying to get home or around town. However, while smartphone users could theoretically adjust some privacy settings to reduce their surveillance footprint, the same cannot necessarily be said for pedestrians in public spaces.
“Consent cannot be given in any meaningful way to any of these data processing operations, as an individual is often in view of cameras linked to billboards or tablets before being alerted to treatment and have the opportunity to leave,” the report read.
“This data is collected not only to determine whether an advertising campaign was successful, but to change the way people experience reality without their explicit consent, all with the goal of making more sales.”