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!

3 comments

  1. “as long as the billboard system isn’t able to tie the information to your person”
    That is literally the $64 million (or more) question! How do we know that the billboard is not correlating data from countless databases to pinpoint exactly whose phone it just accessed? Let’s see, how many web articles have I read recently about an individual mentioning a product with earshot of Siri or Cortana and then receiving a targeted ad on their phone within minutes? Or within earshot of his/her Smart TV? Dozens?

    While companies may think that specifically targeted ads mean better serving the customers, IMNSHO, they are all an invasion of privacy. Of course, as long as the companies are making money off the customers, they do not give a rat’s ass about the customers’ opinions about the ads.

  2. From my UK point of view, this sounds absolutely horrendous. Where is all this data coming from? Just hope we don’t get them over here!

  3. Another horrible idea from companies that purport to respect our privacy and couch their activities in terms that sound so benign, consumer-friendly, and useful. Hogwash. All of these types of monitoring activities are anathema to a society that values freedom from big brother entanglement of any sort, privacy of self, peace of mind, and freedom from intrusion of all kind.

    I absolutely don’t buy in to the notion that these companies have our interests in mind (they don’t), that they collect data only to serve up targeted benefits (data is used for other, more nefarious purposes), and that they take steps to guarantee our privacy and private information (this is demonstrably false). This is a slippery slope with government collusion and an ignorant public’s acquiescence. And the worst part is that society seems to go along with this, mostly unquestionably. And it’s getting to the point where one cannot reasonably opt out because increasingly, services and actions necessary for everyday living are tied to gadgets that we don’t control and can’t do without (because they are manipulating life to be lived that way).

    Our politicians, big business community and entertainment entities all feed into this reality because they benefit, not the consumers. One solution is to break apart corporations, eliminate the notion that corporations are people (people die, but corporations live forever), and start a rigorous public dialog about privacy, rights, freedom, fascism, and allocation and accountability of power. United we stand, divided we fall. And we are all deliberately divided by race, religion, politics, gender issues, etc. Make no mistake, this is all planned to further their agenda, which doesn’t necessarily align with our interests.

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