The Digital Signage Insider

Is Digital Signage Invading Your Privacy?

Published on: 2009-02-10

There's been a lot of talk lately about "billboards that watch you back." Some of the news comes from the trade side, with new companies announcing products that identify individuals (either uniquely or generally along some demographic lines), and then serve them targeted content or record their presence. However, a growing part of the discussion is taking place in the mainstream press -- the likes of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal -- who are starting to wonder what effect all of this covert surveillance and tailored advertising is having on society. Since these entities are commercial and ad-sponsored themselves, I wouldn't count on them for an unbiased review. But one thing's for certain: people are starting to realize that we're entering the age of surveillance, and that for better or worse, this transition will change the way we work, play and shop.

Should you be worried about who's watching you?

Maybe. When it comes to shopping and marketing at-retail, people generally like personalization. We know that loyalty card holders spend more, and that they rate their visits as more pleasant. (There's some self-selection going on there, of course, but that can't be helped.) We know that trade promotion and sampling programs work well and score high on customer satisfaction polls. And we know that people like getting personalized coupons, and are more apt to use them compared to generic coupons. But at some point, it seems like it will all break down. I'd probably be OK with a digital signage screen identifying me as a clean-shaven male and playing back a spot for new Gilette Ninja Xtreem Ultra Pro shaving gel. I'd be less comfortable with it knowing that I was shopper #12345, and that my Dr. Scholls might need replacing. And if it knew my name and started telling me about any of the more unmentionable products in the health care aisle, I'd turn around, leave the store, and never come back.

Where do we draw the line? Well, I've been getting calls and emails from tech vendors, journalists and privacy advocates asking what kinds of services can be offered at retail to help the shopper without seeming pushy, creepy, or violating their privacy. I let these requests stack up for a while now because, quite frankly, I just don't know. After thinking it over some more, I put together this chart to help illustrate the challenge:

Worried yet? Yeah, me too, a little. But let's take a step back and consider how the whole idea of the Uncanny Valley came to be, and how this relates to privacy and personalization.

When machines become too much like us: Exploring the "Uncanny Valley"

Image credit: BradBeattie
Back in the 1970s, sci-fi was entering mainstream culture and the field of robotics was just getting off the ground. In this early period, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first described the Uncanny Valley. As Wikipedia tells us, "When robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The 'valley' in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness." Basically, the more human-like something tries to appear or act, the more we scrutinize its non-human characteristics. This is the effect that allows It's Christmas, Charlie Brown! to be cute and endearing, but makes The Polar Express seem creepy and... well, creepy. But...

How are new technologies influencing marketing and consumer privacy?

As I started thinking about this, I discovered that Seth Godin already had it all figured out. As usual, Seth also explained the issue more eloquently (and less loquaciously) than I could:
We love cute dogs, cute monkeys, clairvoyant websites, smart voice mail systems.

But we get totally wigged out when a website knows too much about us, when we start talking to a voice mail attendant like she's a real person or when a photo or a robot is just too good. A magician is fine, an actual mind reader we burn at the stake.

The relevant issue here for marketers is what happens when our databases and predictions get too good. I don't want the hotel to automatically serve me the same breakfast that I ordered during my last trip, or for the doorman to pretend he's my friend just because he read a database entry about me.
How can you navigate this environment -- and what's the upside?

The Uncanny Valley begins and ends in different spots for me than it does for you. Heck, you might even have liked The Polar Express for all I know. But ensuring that marketers don't overstep their bounds and shoppers continue to trust and enjoy their retail experiences is going to require a real, ongoing dialog between those that sell products and those that buy them. This will have to go beyond mere disclosure of surveillance practices or robust opt-in and opt-out policies, though those will certainly need to exist and be enforced too. But there's real upside to be had, if the graph above is to be believed. At some level of personalization, we ought to be able to get through the valley and deliver higher levels of service that people will genuinely appreciate. While personal shoppers are probably going to be off-limits to all but the super rich for the near future, there may be some low-cost, low-touch method out there that gets past the valley, boosts sales or loyalty for retailers, and leaves shoppers with a warm, fuzzy feeling all at once.

Where does your Uncanny Valley begin? What in-store technologies are you looking forward to as a shopper, and which ones do you think are just plain creepy?


+1 # David Weinfedl 2009-02-11 16:55
GREAT POST! You nailed the chart. It really puts both sides of the argument into perspective. As devices and applications like those pioneered by Trumedia and Quividi continue to proliferate, the argument about consumer privacy will only expand further. Your view toward the importance of maintaining an open dialogue with consumers is right on. It's the only way that marketers can ensure they are providing consumer value without infringing upon personal boundaries.
0 # Steve Russell 2009-02-12 19:39
Bill How time flys. A year ago I recall one of your blogs observing the first signs of encroachment by video surveillance vendors into the digital signage space. As I recall the convergence of surveillance and signage was viewed as being in the distant future. Nevertheless readers debated the merits of measurement versus privacy. It appears the future has arrived. Steve
-1 # Bill Gerba 2009-02-12 21:31
Thanks, David. And extra thanks for taking the time to articulate your opinion with your own blog article. I wish more people would continue the conversation that way! (It's at [[ ignage-and-consumer-privacy.html|http://dsinsights -privacy.html]] for anybody who reads these comments). Steve: yes, I feel the need to keep this topic fresh and top-of-mind, so that means one fearmongering post every few months or so. However, as the NYT, WSJ and other big mainstream media outlets have been carrying more articles on the subject lately, I could see the entire debate coming to a head REAL SOON NOW.
0 # Wayne Moore 2009-02-18 01:38
Bill, I read all your blogs and find you are the most informed and knowledgable on the subject of Digital Signage that I have come across and I might ad, the best of the best. What I would like to know is way has this industry not considered the logic of interfacing OOH signage with mobile user's? By this I mean giving the mobile user the option of dialing a number related to the ariticle displayed to get details available from it's related web site content. These are metrics that can be recorded and reports compiled for the benefit of the advertiser. I would write the software to do it, but only if I had the financial backing to do it. I don't see it as being that complicated. I'm also sure that deployers would love to make it an option to their clients. I would apprciate some feed back on this. Regards Wayne Moore
+2 # Bill Gerba 2009-02-18 15:26
Hi Wayne, In fact there are plenty of platforms out there that will do just what you want - embed a shortcode or QR code into a piece of content that will let a mobile user opt-in to get more information. I just [[ e_and_interactive_kiosks_journal/articles/3_Reason s_Why_Mobile_Marketing_Will_NOT_Replace_Digital_Si gnage-705.html#comments|posted an article]] somewhat related to that topic yesterday, too.
-1 # Anonymous 2009-03-07 23:48
Bill, I disagree with your chart and your theory behind consumer squeamishness. First, your chart only places face/iris identification below the X axis, without explaining why the other applications you list don't belong there as well. In fact, the application in which the kiosk is activated by RFID in a consumer's loyalty card is actually a much greater invasion of privacy than iris/facial recognition. The loyalty card not only identifies individual consumers, but links this identification with their shopping histories. This application belongs below the X axis of your chart even if it has yet to gain as much media attention as facial recognition. The other loyalty card application is less privacy invasive because it suggests tea and crumpet information is analyzed in aggregate, not at the individual level; so this may not belong in the valley. Second, I think consumers' distaste for facial recognition in digital signage has very little to do with the existential paradox of human-like robots; that theory trivializes some very concrete privacy issues. On one level, it's more simple than that: people instinctively don't like being watched or scrutinized without their consent and especially without their notice. Digital signage with identification technologies represent a new front in mass surveillance; in this case the surveillance is used for marketing and not security, which makes the privacy encroachment more offensive because it is surveillance for profit and not for safety (and consumers are already bombarded with ads to begin with). It's naive to think that digital signage will not evolve to routinely identify individuals, because it will be profitable to do so once the technology is less costly. Similarly, it's against the trend of history to believe that the data digital signage firms collect on individual consumers will never be shared with other parties or used for purposes other than marketing; law enforcement is one good example: remember that any records kept by a digital signage firm are available via subpoena or court order. Digital signage companies, trade associations, their partners and their affiliates must commit to consumer anonymity when using facial recognition cameras, and notify consumers of when such cameras are in use; RFID and mobile applications should operate strictly on an opt-in basis. It is past time for the industry to establish concrete consumer privacy standards, both technical and policy-based.

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