New billboards track people’s movements

Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press reported on May 1, 2016, that New York Senator Charles Schumer is calling for a federal investigation into an outdoor advertising company’s latest effort to target billboard ads to specific consumers. Schumer called the Clear Channel Outdoor Americas billboards “spying billboards,” a claim denied by Clear Channel.

Clear Channel, which operates more than 675,000 billboards throughout the world, argues that “spying” is inaccurate. The company insists it only uses anonymous data collected by other companies that certify they are following consumer protection standards. Further, Clear Channel claims it aggregates the data to protect confidentiality.

In a video on its website, Clear Channel says it “measures consumers’ real-world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day, analyzing data on direction of travel, billboard viewability, and visits to specific destinations.”

Clear Channel then maps that data against Clear Channel’s displays, allowing advertisers to buy ads in places that “reach specific behavioral audience segments,” says the company.

Clear Channel calls this program RADAR.

Senator Schumer says an investigation is necessary because “most people don’t realize their location data is being mined, even if they agreed to it at some point by accepting the terms of service of an app that later sells their location information.”

My Take

Advertisers have always tried to target consumers as tightly as possible to maximize the efficiency of their ad budgets. Nothing new there!

But it’s not immediately clear how the content of billboards changes based on the group of people meandering through a place like Times Square at any given moment. Nor is it immediately clear how the data is aggregated and how large the aggregations are. Finally, it is not clear whether the company has the ability to dis-aggregate data to track specific individuals. For instance, could the data be used to track the movement of someone through a city? And, in less scrupulous hands, could the technology be used to harvest highly personal information from my phone, such as account numbers, health data, etc.

I personally don’t want a billboard company tracking all of my movements. While I DON”T mind seeing relevant information on billboards, I DO worry about the erosion of personal privacy.

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