Privacy Advocates Raise Alarm Over Apps, Billboards and Cell Phones that Track the Public

Wednesday, March 02, 2016
(photo: Getty Images)

By Sydney Ember, New York Times


Pass a billboard while driving in the next few months, and there is a good chance the company that owns it will know you were there and what you did afterward.


Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which has tens of thousands of billboards across the United States, will announce Monday that it has partnered with several companies, including AT&T, to track people’s travel patterns and behaviors through their mobile phones.


By aggregating the trove of data from these companies, Clear Channel Outdoor hopes to provide advertisers with detailed information about the people who pass its billboards to help them plan more effective, targeted campaigns. With the data and analytics, Clear Channel Outdoor could determine the average age and gender of the people who are seeing a particular billboard in, say, Boston at a certain time and whether they subsequently visit a store.


“In aggregate, that data can then tell you information about what the average viewer of that billboard looks like,” said Andy Stevens, senior vice president for research and insights at Clear Channel Outdoor. “Obviously that’s very valuable to an advertiser.”


Clear Channel and its partners — AT&T Data Patterns, a unit of AT&T that collects location data from its subscribers; PlaceIQ, which uses location data collected from other apps to help determine consumer behavior; and Placed, which pays consumers for the right to track their movements and is able to link exposure to ads to in-store visits — all insist that they protect the privacy of consumers. All data is anonymous and aggregated, they say, meaning individual consumers cannot be identified.


Still, Stevens acknowledged that the company’s new offering “does sound a bit creepy.”


But, he added, the company was using the same data that mobile advertisers have been using for years, and showing certain ads to a specific group of consumers was not a new idea. “It’s easy to forget that we’re just tapping into an existing data ecosystem,” he said.


In many ways, billboards are still stuck in the old-media world, where companies tried to determine how many people saw billboards by counting the cars that drove by. But in recent years, billboard companies have made more of an effort to step into the digital age.


Some billboards for example, have been equipped with small cameras that collect information about the people walking by. Clear Channel Outdoor’s move is yet another attempt to modernize billboards and enable the kind of audience measurements that advertisers have come to expect.


Privacy advocates, however, have long raised questions about mobile device tracking, particularly as companies have melded this location information with consumers’ online behavior to form detailed audience profiles.


Opponents contend that people often do not realize their location and behavior are being tracked, even if they have agreed at some point to allow companies to monitor them. And while nearly all of these companies claim that the data they collect is anonymous and aggregated — and that consumers can opt out of tracking at any time — privacy advocates are skeptical.


“People have no idea that they’re being tracked and targeted,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “It is incredibly creepy, and it’s the most recent intrusion into our privacy.”


The Federal Trade Commission has brought a number of cases related to mobile device tracking and the collection of geolocation information.


In 2013, the agency settled charges with the company behind a popular Android app that turned mobile devices into flashlights. The agency said the company’s privacy policy did not inform consumers that it was sharing their location information with third parties like advertisers.


Last year, the agency settled charges against Nomi Technologies, a retail-tracking company that uses signals from shoppers’ mobile phones to track their movements through stores. The agency claimed that the company had misled consumers about their opt-out options.


For Clear Channel Outdoor, the goal is to give advertisers tools to buy and measure the effectiveness of outdoor ads that are similar to those they use for digital and mobile ads. It tested the suite of data and analytics, which it calls Radar, with the shoe company Toms and said it found a rise in brand awareness and purchases.


Clear Channel Outdoor will offer Radar in its top 11 markets, including Los Angeles and New York, starting Monday, with plans to make it available across the country later this year.


To Learn More:

Privacy of No Concern for Ted Cruz Mobile App in Campaign’s Massive Data Mining Operation (by Michael Biesecker and Julie Bykowicz, Associated Press)

Political Campaigns’ New Invasive Tool to Win Elections: Scanning Faces, Brains and Bodies of Voters (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Smartphone Users Tracked by Apps an Average of every Three Minutes (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

NSA Can Track Every Cell Phone in the World, Collects 5 Billion Records per Day (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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