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?
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