Are “Smart Billboards” An Invasion of Privacy?

In the 21st century, advertisements have become a part of daily life for the vast majority of people in the world. This is especially true with the rise in popularity of the Internet which has provided a ripe breeding ground for a variety of large companies looking to expand their brands’ reaches. Still, billboard and television ads are seen as older and more “traditional”, while web advertising is more dynamic and caters to the individual user’s perceived preferences.

The two rarely cross, but when “smart billboards” come along, we might see this all change. These new billboards are data-driven, meaning that they will use information they know about passersby to determine what kinds of ads they will display. With the arrival of this new form of advertisement, we can’t help but ask whether this constitutes an invasion of privacy.

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Aside from the cheeky “smart billboards are billboards that are smart” retort, this form of advertising takes advantage of the fact that mobile devices and vehicles are very commonplace in the modern world. Smart billboards extrapolate data from their surroundings to gauge what kinds of demographics are looking at them and then proceed to display advertisements that are appropriate to the group of people standing in front of them.

For example, a billboard could somehow “sense” that 80 percent of the people walking by it are women and might display an ad for a feminine hygiene product on the screen. If it can sniff WiFi traffic being sent and received around it, a billboard will be able to target its advertisements even further based on the type of sites its target group are visiting.

In March 2015 Yahoo submitted a patent for a billboard that scans cars on the highway, targeting its ads to the demographics known to drive the more common make and model driving by.

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Whenever we see data-driven solutions being applied to particular aspects of our daily lives, it’s natural to stop and wonder whether that data is being used in a diligent and ethical manner.

I mentioned earlier that smart billboards could have the potential to sniff out all public WiFi data being broadcast from devices. The idea of having all of the data your phone sends peered through in order to generate catered advertising does present many questions about privacy breaches. What if you’re the only person in range of the billboard? That would make you the only person it’s collecting data from.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made here that using public Wi-Fi under any circumstances to exchange private data is a very bad idea. But aside from that, as long as the billboard system isn’t able to tie the information to your person, it doesn’t know who that data belongs to, making it useless except in the case of displaying information that’s relevant to you at that very moment.

That’s not to say that this isn’t something to be concerned about; your phone still may broadcast its unique MAC address at any point, clearly identifying a source to the data. There are many ways to exploit this kind of communication, but none of these exploits are caused necessarily by the presence of smart billboards. These caveats all come as a result of using public WiFi networks, and I guess we’ve simply found just one more reason why we need to be careful in such situations.

Do smart billboards present a potential breach of privacy? Tell us what you think in a comment!

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