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Digital Signage: Privacy in a ‘One-Way Mirror Society’

Feb 15, 20116 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftRFID

How smart and interactive will digital signage become before there is a great public outcry about privacy invasion?

Digital signage is getting smarter, more interactive, and the ads with eyes come in many attention-snagging varieties. It’s a big booming business to use digital signage to expand upon consumer interaction via RFID-enabled smart shelves and smart carts, video walls, interactive kiosks, shopping mall maps, vending machines with facial recognition software, and even digital signage that interacts with the GPS on your smart phone. How smart and interactive will digital signage become before there is a great public outcry about privacy invasion?


Harley Geiger, Policy Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), was one of the first to warn about consumer privacy issues via digital signage technologies. Gieger wrote about the risks of facial recognition and RFID used to improve ad targeting. As Geiger noted about this technology, “As a consumer draws near to the screen, the camera can record the consumer‚ demographics (age, gender, etc.) and the screen runs an ad to match the consumer’s profile.” RFID and Bluetooth are other commons ways for digital signage systems to increase the effectiveness of targeting ads. For instance, if a barcode can be read to determine what is in your shopping cart at the grocery store, then the relevant ads can pop up on the screen. It works a bit like Amazon’s “customers who bought this product also bought these products.”

Earlier this month, the Digital Signage Federation (DSF) took a big proactive step by adopting privacy standards [PDF] for its members and their affiliates. Another group, the Point of Purchase Advertising International (POPAI) released its set of privacy guidelines [PDF]. Both of these privacy standards tell their companies to obtain consumers’ opt-in consent before using digital signage to collect or store personally identifiable information. Additionally, collecting personal info on minors under the age of 13 is prohibited.

Although these privacy standards are a step in the right direction, they are also voluntary which is not enough to protect consumers. As we’ve seen in online behavioral advertising, when it comes to tracking and collecting consumer data, self-regulated guidelines don’t work. Too often, these guidelines go unenforced. At least 9 times out of 10, privacy loses out in favor of profit.

According to Research Live, the technology for “billboards that look back” is too open to abuse. The World Privacy Forum warned that “digital signage systems fitted with sensors, cameras and facial recognition systems for the delivery of targeted advertising risk creating a ‘one-way-mirror society.'” [PDF].

Most consumers are not too keen on the prospect of digital signage like flat screen TVs with the capability of spying on them. While the digital signage advertisements in Minority Report were both cool and creepy concepts, in real life if every digital sign interactively tossed personalized ads at you, and called out your name, that level of targeted ads and privacy invasion would be beyond creepy.

I’ve put together a small list of “impressive” examples of digital signage. Japan is especially big on interactive digital signage vending machines; one type uses facial recognition to suggest a drink after identifying customers by age and gender. The 47-inch touchscreen is embedded with sensors that help it to determine details of anyone who approaches, explained the Telegraph.

In America, Kraft Foods, with help from Intel’s Connected Store, came up with a kiosk digital signage that suggests recipes by using facial recognition software to help plan your dinner. Fast Company reported that if you allow it, it can read your purchases off loyalty cards, recommend meals based on buying history, send recipes to your phone, make a booblehead, and even distribute snacks.

According to Econsultancy, Microsoft and Intel showed off a 7-foot-6-inch billboard with a camera and two displays at CES. It can recognize consumers as male or female to present products as well as send a map to the store and a coupon to that consumer’s smartphone. “According to Intel, the signs can pass data anonymously to advertisers to help with marketing pitches, but it’s harder to make the anonymous argument when taking a scan of someone’s face.”

Target is using digital signage to help parents shop for video games. There are no demo video games on the interactive touchscreen to discourage kids from touching it. The flip-side of that are businesses that want everyone to touch their digital signage. According to 247 Magazine, “Drench Smart Vending Machine, with an intelligent interactive touchscreen, is programmed with a number of fun games that test mental agility in order to demonstrate that brains perform best when they’re hydrated.” This unique machine offers 40 different games to play and win instead of accepting money.

Hospitals are using passive RFID that can be read from 5 – 8 meters for digital signage wayfinding, a high tech “you are here” system. More-sophisticated technology will soon come to digital signage like indoor and outdoor sign displays that when turned off, seem to be clear windows, reported Printed Electronic World.

Unilever’s smile-activated ice cream machine, is a digital signage vending machine that uses facial recognition to capture and measure your smile 15 times a second, determines age and gender and – if you smile big enough – rewards you with ice cream. You can even upload and share your smile-for-free-ice-cream picture on Facebook.

Some of those seem undoubtedly cool, others seem a bit creepy.

For now, most people find interactive digital signage to be a fun novelty. Hopefully, businesses will adopt and enforce privacy standards before it gets out of control. There are many issues to be addressed as more detailed profiles are built via digital signage which analyze faces, take pictures, and collects and stores those personal images. How often have we seen sci-fi tech in a movie that a person later turns into a reality? Many of these digital signs interact with smartphones, but how much interaction with your phone is too much? When the attention-getting day comes that a digital sign reads your phone and then calls out your name?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.