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Yahoo! Chooses Ads Over Privacy Responsibilities

Imagine a billboard that knows what you like and flashes up targeted messaging as you drive by, based on what you’ve surfed to and searched for online. Is that a bit too Minority Report for you?

It could happen: Yahoo has filed a patent for a type of smart billboard that would collect people's information and use it to deliver targeted ad content in real-time.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem that much different than Google serving up ads that echo your recent online searches, or Facebook “sponsored posts” appearing in your feed based on what you’ve posted about.

“People were very creeped out by the technology in Minority Report that scans faces, recognizes them and has AI advertising try to sell things specifically tailored to them,” said Jonathan Sander, VP of product strategy at Lieberman Software, via email. “What they didn’t realize is this happens every day on the internet. If you use a free service on the web like email, social media or storage, then you and your data are the actual product of the service and you’re being sold to advertisers. The Yahoo! billboard plan isn’t anything new except for the size of the screen.”

However, he thinks that the public nature of the targeting is the main thing that may give some the heebie-jeebies.

“Of course, since you are not the only one who will see a billboard, it may feel a bit different to have your data used there instead of your phone’s screen,” he said. “Soon the choice users may face is to opt out of all the free services they use, or see their data on billboards during their morning commute.”

But it’s more than that. A researcher for Graham Cluley’s organization looked into the Yahoo! patent and discovered both good and bad news, from a privacy perspective.

For one, the billboard messages wouldn’t be personalized—but rather, will rely on "groupization." Yahoo! would collect information about a target audience, i.e., create a demographic that shares certain desirable characteristics for an advertiser, then display relevant ad content accordingly. To do this, it would capture real-time audio, video and biometric information about passersby using cameras and sensors.

The patent application itself outlines an example: "A digital billboard adjacent a busy freeway might be instrumented with or located near traffic sensors that detect information about the context of the vehicles approaching the billboard, e.g., the number and average speed of the vehicles. Such information might be used in conjunction with information about the time of day and/or the day of the week (e.g., Monday morning rush hour) to select advertisements for display that would appeal to an expected demographic and to display the advertisements for durations that are commensurate with the level of traffic congestion."

Well that doesn’t sound so bad, right? But wait, there’s more:

"Various types of data (e.g., cell tower data, mobile app location data, image data, etc.) can be used to identify specific individuals in an audience in position to view advertising content. Similarly, vehicle navigation/tracking data from vehicles equipped with such systems could be used to identify specific vehicles and/or vehicle owners. Demographic data (e.g., as obtained from a marketing or user database) for the audience can thus be determined for the purpose of, for example, determining whether and/or the degree to which the demographic profile of the audience corresponds to a target demographic."

Now that seems like an entirely different kettle of fish—swimming with big-time privacy implications.

Smart billboards have been done before—for instance, data storage company Cloudian and Japanese advertising company Dentsu launched a pilot program to tailor ads on billboards to the make, model and year of the vehicles driving by. People driving a five-year old vehicle might see an ad for a newer model of the same car, for instance. Combining big data and deep learning, the test identified vehicles in traffic (based off a database of images) correctly 94% of the time.

Once the system has identified a vehicle, it displays a targeted ad on the LED billboard for as long as five seconds.

The privacy issues come into play in a very different way under the Yahoo! scheme, which will use a vast amount of information about specific people to make advertisers happier. If that feels like an invasion, that’s because it would be. It remains to be seen if the patent will be granted—but the technology development could progress regardless, and that should feel worrisome, to put it mildly. 

Photo © Tashatuvango

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