Photo: Consumer Reports
“How the most intrusive parts of the web are expanding into the real world, complete with data collection and targeted ads.
On a bright Friday morning, Frank O’Brien is giving me a tour through Times Square in New York City. Thousands of strangers are milling around us on the sidewalk, and in the crowd, it’s easy to feel anonymous. But according to O’Brien, many of the billboards and screens towering over our heads in every direction know a lot about who we are.
‘As we stand here, there are devices behind that screen that are picking ID numbers from our cell phones,’ O’Brien tells me, gesturing toward a billboard at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. Using those devices and other technology, he says, ‘We know who is in Times Square at a given moment.’
O’Brien, the CEO of a high-tech advertising platform called Five Tier, launches an app on his phone. He taps a few buttons and in an instant, the billboard changes to display a picture of me I’d sent him the day before. Suddenly, I’m famous, with a 20-foot-high photo of me gazing out over the tourists. ‘It still amazes me sometimes,’ he says…
Data including your gender, age, race, income, interests, and purchasing habits can be used by a company such as Five Tier to trigger an advertisement right away. Or, more often, it will be used for planning where and when to show ads in the future—maybe parents of school-age children tend to pass a particular screen at 3 p.m. on weekdays, while 20-something singles usually congregate nearby on Saturday nights.
Then the tracking continues. Once your phone is detected near a screen showing a particular ad, an advertising company may follow up by showing you related ads in your social media feed, and in some cases these ads may be timed to coordinate with the commercials you see on your smart TV at night.
It doesn’t stop there. Advertisers are keenly interested in ‘attribution,’ judging how well a marketing campaign influences consumer behavior. For instance, is it better to target people like you with online ads for fast food right after you see a restaurant’s new TV commercial, or to wait until after you drive by a new billboard the next day? The advertising industry looks for the answers by watching where you go in person, what you do online, and what you buy with your credit card.
Charts: Example shown in Consumer reports
These aren’t futuristic scenarios. They are a recent but growing trend, according to executives in the advertising business. ‘The industry has really started to wake up to this within the last year,’ says Ian Dallimore, the director of digital growth for Lamar Advertising, a leader in out-of-home advertising. ‘If you’re not using data to better plan and buy ads, then you’re probably not doing out-of-home the right way.’
Researchers say that as tracking and ad targeting spill over from the web into the real world, our collective privacy and sense of control are eroding. If you don’t want to see ads at home, you can close your browser or turn off your phone, but you can’t avoid the ads you see in public. And there’s no practical way to completely block the location tracking used to place those ads…
Photo: Consumer Reports
Lawmakers and regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission are paying more attention to data privacy, but it’s not clear how the measures being put in place will affect the way individuals are tracked through their phones, and how the data is used by data brokers and their clients. Several out-of-home advertising companies I spoke with said they already comply with GDPR, Europe’s sweeping privacy regulation that was implemented in 2018. The companies also say they are prepared for the most stringent privacy legislation in the U.S., the California Consumer Privacy Act, which is supported by Consumer Reports and goes into effect in January 2020.
Five Tier’s Frank O’Brien says that, just like every other industry, the out-of-home advertising business should be regulated. But for now, if you’re not comfortable with how out-of-home advertising uses your information, you don’t have much recourse. ‘I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it,’ he says. ”
— Thomas Germain, Consumer Reports
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