Innovation: When advertising meets surveillance

 

Innovation is our regular column that highlights emerging technological ideas and where they may lead.

Privacy campaigners are celebrating the news that the UK’s largest ISP has dumped plans to roll out a controversial system, created by a firm called Phorm, which would snoop on users’ web use in order to serve up personalised advertising.

The Phorm episode is just the latest battle in the long-running war over online privacy. But the next skirmishes over privacy-invading technology will not be fought online, but on the streets.

Eye balling

With electronic billboards, processing power, cameras and other sensors becoming ever cheaper, it’s become possible to manufacture products that allow web-like targeting in the real world.

For example, a system developed by Singapore’s research agency lets advertising screens detect the genders of passers-by: it will soon be able to tell how old they are, too. IBM has worked on systems that can scan a crowd and estimate numbers, demographics, and where people are looking.

Computer vision is sophisticated and cheap enough to make it possible to spot the logos on your drinks cup or shopping bags, and serve up ads in response – whether to reinforce your choice or promote a competitor.

And now that facial recognition has become a consumer technology it wouldn’t be difficult to install a series of ad screens that tracks individuals as they move through a subway system or mall, greeting them at each turn with a particular message or character.

Message metrics

These new tools can also let advertisers monitor the performance of adverts more closely, much as they monitor how many people see, and click on, online adverts.

For example, this camera can tell where multiple people are looking from a few metres away. That allows ad buyers to tell instantly how many people saw a commercial and how long they looked at it for.

Systems based on conventional cameras can gather similar data, as this billboard that changes when someone looks away illustrates.

Opt out or opt in

The developers of these technologies often suggest that they will be beneficial for everyone. Viewers are targeted with relevant offers, rather than bombarded with spam; advertisers, for their part, won’t waste money on people who have no interest in their products. As the industrial magnate William Lever once quipped: "Half my advertising money is wasted. The problem is that I don’t know which half."

But that hasn’t persuaded many privacy advocates, who think there’s a principle at stake – the right not to be monitored without giving consent – and fear that the result will be more intrusive than helpful. If you agree with that perspective, the omens aren’t good.

The technology that underpins online behavioural advertising has raced ahead of the public debate about whether and how it should be controlled – as evidenced by the machinations that have surrounded Phorm’s proposals. Legislation is still at an embryonic stage: for example, this bill has been proposed in New York.

In the absence of formal controls, most of the biggest online advertisers, including Google and Yahoo, have opted for self-regulation: they allow people to opt out by visiting a certain webpage. That, say critics, is just a ruse, both avoiding discussion about the desirability of these technologies, and establishing opt-in as the default position.

It’s hard to see how opt-out could be efficiently implemented for billboards on the street – at least without a new wave of devices that can communicate their owners’ preferences to nearby advertising systems.

But the necessary infrastructure for such a system is unlikely to be developed without considerable public pressure – unlikely to materialise until long after smart billboards are already in your face.

Innovation: When advertising meets surveillance – tech – 07 July 2009 – New Scientist

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