The Digital Signage Insider

Digital signage networks must guarantee viewer privacy

Published on: 0000-00-00

The title of this post says it all: digital signage (and other out-of-home media) networks must guarantee viewer privacy, unequivocally and without exception. This needs to happen automatically, without requiring consumers to opt-out of anything. The fact that the matter is even up for debate right now is astonishing to me. Granted, I'm a bit of a personal privacy zealot. But it's still hard to imagine that there are legions of consumers who are perfectly at home with the idea of constant surveillance by practically anybody that has the wherewithal to install a camera or two. However, a lot of people have been talking about the "expectation of privacy" lately, which fits nicely into our ongoing discussion about the merits and dangers of in-store media measurement.

Why is privacy in digital out-of-home such a hot topic right now?

Two articles came out practically back-to-back that rekindled my desire to once again rant about the potentials for privacy abuse in the digital out-of-home industry. First was this opinion piece by Erik Sass at MediaPost. By his estimate, we're just 5-10 years away from having a "Minority Report-like" retail experience, though he stops short of suggesting that it will be fully complete with long-distance retina scanning and personalized holographic attendants. What he means, of course, is that we're close to having the technology to track people not just inside individual stores, but essentially anytime and anywhere. As if to assure people that they simply won't have the choice to keep their privacy in the future, Google stated "privacy does not exist" in court documents filed in Pennsylvania. As MarketWatch notes, "Google's privacy statements yesterday came on the heels of comments by Google 'Evangelist' Vint Cerf to the Washington Technology Alliance's annual luncheon in May where he explained that 'nothing you do ever goes away, and nothing you do ever escapes notice... There isn't any privacy, get over it.'"

Let's ignore for a moment the fact that retailers and consumers should never, ever want to have a "Minority Report-like" experience. As I've outlined before, the Orwellian surveillance systems implemented in the movie's not-too-distant future drove the protagonist to have his eyes removed in order to reclaim his privacy. I don't know about you, but eye gouging does not make for a good customer experience in my book. Instead, let's assume Google is right and the very concept of a guarantee of personal privacy is on the way out. What does that mean for us? I mean, we're in business to put messages in front of people, right? We want those messages to be relevant and appropriate, right? Shouldn't we use every means necessary -- including vast databases of accumulated personal information -- to do so? Some people will answer that question with a quick "yes!". Others with an equally quick "no!". And plenty of people will fall somewhere in between.

Who's going to protect consumer data?

Instead of arguing over the types of information that digital signage companies have the right to collect and use, I propose that we focus on a different question: who is going to be responsible for it? More specifically, who's responsible for collecting the viewer data, who's responsible for giving or limiting access to it, and who's responsible for ensuring that consumers are aware of the process -- and that their rights and wishes aren't ignored? There are several possibilities, each of which has some pros and cons:

The government: They have the capital and logistical resources to implement a complete tracking system, as well as the legal ability to regulate it. However, civil libertarians (and anybody with any common sense) would block such a Big Brother-ish situation from coming to pass. Not to mention that the government is about the least efficient entity on the planet, and ought to know better than to take on a big, expensive and controversial project that would almost certainly be better handled by the private sector.

The ACLU or some other privacy group: While probably the safest option from a privacy standpoint, it's also the least practical. This type of group would probably be hesitant to collect any significant volume of data, which would encourage companies to take a rogue approach and find their own ways of collecting personal information.

Arbitron, Nielsen or another measurement company: These guys are a seemingly obvious choice, since they already make their living collecting consumer data, both in the real world and online. Further, they're trusted by consumers (who must agree to supply the data) and retailers and advertisers (who are current buyers of the data). However, there are currently very few restrictions on what they're allowed to collect, and who they have to tell about it. That would surely attract the attention of the government and privacy groups mentioned above.

Google or another Internet marketer: Another obvious-looking choice, since they already collect tons of data about our online behavior. In Google's case, they have also gone to great lengths to extend their reach to offline behavior as well. However, just as with the measurement companies above, these guys are already on the hot seat trying to justify their data collection practices. In this scenario, I wouldn't be surprised if one Senator or Congressperson, after finding some unflattering information in a search, launched a bill to regulate the online industry, the digital out-of-home industry or both.

POPAI, OVAB, or another (new?) non-profit industry group: As a non-profit, one of these groups would have less incentive to sacrifice consumer privacy in the name of profits. As an industry advocate, it would have the motivation to keep clients happy by supplying quality data. But would self-imposed limitations and restrictions be enough to keep the government and private watchdogs at bay? Frankly, I'm not sure.

Which privacy approach should we push for?

All of the options I've covered have some downsides. But when it comes to private versus public involvement, I lean quite heavily to the private side. As far as for-profit versus non-profit status, a fairly conservative stance on privacy makes me lean towards the latter. And hey, self-regulation has worked reasonably well for most industries. On the other hand, stalwart self-regulated industries consistently fall from grace at some point. Think of the long-standing, self-imposed ban on hard liquor advertising on TV that disappeared virtually overnight in 1996. And what about a consumer's bill of rights? The real Bill of Rights apparently is insufficient to guarantee any aspect of our privacy, if current actions by the government and private companies alike are anything to go by. So any organization that decides to take up the reins would need to quickly put forth a list of rights that they guarantee to anyone who is subject to monitoring, whether passive or active. Likewise, there would have to be complete transparency so that consumers could tell how and where their data was being used.

It's no secret that governments are still having trouble with the relatively simple one-step process of electronic voting. So my guess is that reputation, money, politics and the law will all come into play as the issue of tracking people in out-of-home spaces becomes more common. But Google is drawing more attention to the issue now than ever before, which at least means that individuals, corporations, non-profit groups and even the government are spending more time thinking about privacy issues. That's a step in the right direction. But we need strong leadership and a charter to truly "do no evil" to protect every individual's rights, while having the smallest impact on private enterprise.

Who do you think should be responsible for collecting online and offline behavioral data? Should digital signage networks make their own privacy commitments today, or wait for a larger consensus in the marketplace?

Leave a comment with your thoughts. Email and RSS folks, click the link below to access the comment form.


+1 # Annie 2008-08-01 20:14
Bill, This is timely and well said. I think it's always in the industry's best interest to act responsibly -- and yes, they don't always do so, but a push in the right direction helps a lot. Annie
0 # Francois Reeves 2008-08-04 22:42
Dear Bill, This time, and this time only, you've gone overboard. Cameras don't associate names with people just yet (except for known belligerent individuals scanned by airport equipment...). Think about years of VISA, MasterCard, Amex, CitiGroup, etc. electronic consumer transactions. Orwellian indeed, 1984 galore. Yet, I know that data sets are so huge that they cannot be associated to individuals, they are parsed for trends, patterns and large scale behavourial intelligence. The sheer amount of digital signage traffic would guarantee privacy. Analysis would take days if not weeks. What has a consumer to hide anyway? I want my purchasing patterns to be analyzed so I get relevant offers. Whether I consent or not, they are analyzed anyhow--- in a large sense. You want privacy, use cash. You want public privacy (contradiction) wear Groucho Marx glasses. 1984 was a grey vision of the world, 2008 is much shinier.
-1 # Bill Gerba 2008-08-05 16:31
Hi Francois, The problem with your argument is that it's based on today's practical limitations. While Visa currently might not have the ability to link together the myriad of personalized information available, tomorrow's certainly will. By 2020, computers will be nearly 100 times more powerful than they are today, and even more pervasive. Now, the credit card industry is regulated to some extent, so Visa isn't likely to be the catalyst for change here. But not so for retail marketers and online marketers, many of whom are already collecting billions of pieces of consumer data every day. My argument isn't that this is a big problem **now**, it's that if we don't address it, it **will** be a big problem in the future. Thomas Jefferson once said: "Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms (of government) those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny." There's no reason to think that sentiment applies **only** to governments. It's perhaps even more true in the private sector.
-1 # James Tenser 2008-08-11 16:57
I'm a big fan of yours, Bill, but like Francois, I believe we all must reexamine our assumptions about privacy. Scary as it may seem, Google's argument is probably largely correct. First, is privacy in public spaces a fundamental right? I'd argue no. Any activity that takes place in the context of cultural interaction (including on the World Wide Web) will be subject to observation and interpretation by others - individuals and institutions. Second, this can't be stopped anyway. Regardless of which body is placed in charge of protecting privacy, the very act of concentrating information toward this end effectively defeats all hope of true and complete privacy. We've passed through a one-way door on this and we all had better learn to get used to it. Third, we all willingly give up bits of privacy all the time when it provides us with value. Privacy and personalization are two sides of a coin. If you want personalized service or custom products, you must share something about your person with the provider. Fourth, the younger generation, due to their innate Web literacy, has a very different attitude about expectation of privacy versus us baby boomers. Witness the social networking phenomenon. Us older folks tend to worry about privacy in the abstract, while younger folks don't fret about it. Fifth, I don't necessarily want Google in charge of my personal information, any more than I want an Orwellian government agency to "protect" it. Sixth, openly observing my public behavior in a retail store or transit hub is fair game - as long as there is full disclosure that it is happening. Surreptitiously observing my behavior in a hotel room is not fair game. Neither is mining my bank transactions for purchasing patterns without my knowledge. Finally, we have an obligation to educate ourselves and the public about this. Just as we teach media literacy, we need to teach privacy literacy. What's needed here is not a spurious standard guarded by institutions that cannot be trusted. Instead we need realistic understanding that no consumer is an island; that what we do in public will have consequences, good and bad; and that old notions of privacy are no longer reliable.
-1 # Steve Russell 2008-08-11 18:32
Bill, I think I come down more on the side of Francois and James. My question is how you feel about the issue of surveillance cameras in general. As you know there is a very large surveillance industry that continues to grow. You seem to be drawing a distinction between collecting data to observe criminal behavior and collecting data by marketers. Local, state and federal government agencies are already gathering this data and presumably not using it for nefarious purposes. Do you object to the existance of cameras in the public square period or do you object to the selected uses of the data being collected, i.e., ok if collected by security departments but not ok if collected by marketing departments? In any event I think it is great that you have addressed this issue and the potential for abuse. Steve
-1 # Bill Gerba 2008-08-12 18:31
Hi James, Great comment, very well laid-out. I'd like to provide a point-by-point reply: 1. You're technically correct, the right to privacy is not guaranteed by the US Constitution. However, several Supreme Court rulings have deemed it a "fundamental human right" thus protected by the 9th Amendment. I might also make the case that privacy is fundamental to many of the other Amendments (in particular the 3rd, 4th and 5th), so there's definitely some legal precedent that needs to be considered here. So question #1 to you: would you prefer that all privacy-related concerns be dictated by the interpretations of judges, or would it maybe be better to have the private sector lay some ground rules first? 2. I also agree that using personal data to improve our lives can't -- and shouldn't -- be stopped. However, your argument is pretty fatalist and assumes that some big entity like Google will be doing all of the collecting, storage and analysis. This would be pretty terrible if true, since if there's one thing we've seen, companies with monopolies can't help but exploit them. We'd be much better off with a distributed system that moves the information -- and our trust -- between several unrelated parties. 3. Yup, also agree. Loyalty programs are a prime example of this. But what's the value of you merely walking past a store window? Is that brief look at the merchandise on display sufficient value for the store owner to pull the information on your RFID badge, or store your image? Is it valuable enough that they should then be able to sell this data upstream to some entity that's building a complete personal profile? It's a slippery slope, and that's what I'm trying to draw attention to here. 4. There is truth to this, but it doesn't mean that the trend is good. And if there is a legal right to privacy (see #1 above), I think it sets a very bad precedent to let that slip away due to ignorance, complacency, or both. 5. Yup, I agree with you there, but they're quickly becoming the de-facto collector and keeper of all sorts of personal info. Don't like it? That's all the more reason to figure out some guidelines and get some group to back them. 6. What about the case you missed - surreptitiously observing your data in a retail store (it's called surveillance, as Steve Russel points out below, and it's already very common). Or, taking that a step further, what about said store collecting that information and then selling it to a company that conglomerates it from all of the places that you visit and shop at? 7. Your best point by far, and I love the concept of "privacy literacy." I think I might have to start using that :) As you've probably guessed, I don't really like any of the answers above any more than you do, but it's important to get a discussion going. Every time I've tried in the past it hasn't gotten anywhere, but perhaps now that Google is getting into all sorts of privacy-related trouble the time is right. Thanks for taking the time to comment! -Bill
+1 # Laura Davis-Taylor 2008-08-14 16:32
I'm with Bill 100% on this one guys. I'm also trying to help raise awareness on this because it is indeed a slippery slope and must be managed correctly. We must all embrace that no one FORCES an individual to walk into a retail store--it's not a public space. And if most retailers engage in measurement practices that feel creepy and uncomfortable to a slice of the population, they do it at the detriment of the whole. Also, if the consumer voice rears up and cries foul, some retailers will NOT utilize these practices as a competitive edge! And then who wins? We all do...because these systems can truly help us better serve the customer if they are activated responsibly and sensibly. Which comes right back to Bill's key point--that we need to look at this issue hard and set some guiding principles that will help us ensure slow and steady consumer acceptance.
-1 # Francois Reeves 2008-08-29 19:24
I wish I could have expressed my views as eloquently as James Tenser did. I think this issue should be investigated further. Bill, once again, you have succeeded in raising some very thought provoking points. Perhaps you should have an "Ask Bill" input form on this site or allow users to open up threads of their own. Nice point too Laura about shops not being truly "public".
0 # Hieronymus 2008-09-16 14:06
I agree with Bill. I think this is one of many indicators that converging media poses an acute privacy problem in the future. Although the real effect won't be felt for some years to come, perhaps as much as a generation, it will constitute a profound societal change when the panopticon finally does arrive. It will be far easier and less expensive to install privacy protections early on rather than trying to retrofit those protections into an established system. It also appears, Bill, that someone in the privacy advocacy community takes the future of digital signage as seriously as you do:

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