Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Billboards That Look Back

This article in the New York Times regarding billboards that actually "look" back at you and register a variety of your characteristics can be filed in the "that's really creepy" category of privacy related issues.

This reminds me of Minority Report with a dash of 1984 thrown in...and being that its news to me let's get to the meat of the article first:

They are equipping billboards with tiny cameras that gather details about passers-by — their gender, approximate age and how long they looked at the billboard. These details are transmitted to a central database.


The goal, these companies say, is to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it — to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.


Although surveillance cameras have become commonplace in banks, stores and office buildings, their presence takes on a different meaning when they are meant to sell products rather than fight crime. So while the billboard technology may solve a problem for advertisers, it may also stumble over issues of public acceptance.


“I think a big part of why it’s accepted is that people don’t know about it,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. “You could make them conspicuous,” he said of video cameras. “But nobody really wants to do that because the more people know about it, the more it may freak them out or they may attempt to avoid it.”

And the issue gets thornier: the companies that make these systems, like Quividi and TruMedia Technologies, say that with a slight technological addition, they could easily store pictures of people who look at their cameras.

The companies say they do not plan to do this, but Mr. Tien said he thought their intentions were beside the point. The companies are not currently storing video images, but they could if compelled by something like a court order, he said.

So there you have it, yet another "avenue" has been found by big business to market to us, watch us, and store information about us! I'm not going to make any public policy suggestions yet (I can safely say I oppose this concept however), but the worry, as hinted at by Lee Tien of EFF, the real fear here is not what these billboards are being used for right now (as creepy as it may be) but what they could be used for in the future (as in Government surveillance).

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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