The New York Times reports on “Billboards That Look Back.” “[S]ome entrepreneurs […] are equipping billboards with tiny cameras that gather details about passers-by — their gender, approximate age and how long they looked at the billboard. These details are transmitted to a central database.” This is supposed to help build a better billboard — one that is tailored specifically to the individual standing in front of it. Along the lines of the scene in “Minority Report” where Tom Cruise walks through a mall and various stores say some version of, “Hello, Mr. X. Would you like to buy these pants, since you bought a similar pair a month ago?” The companies “say they are not storing actual images of the passers-by, so privacy should not be a concern.” (They’re wrong. There are several privacy concerns.) It would be simple to start storing images, they admit.
The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon.
Germany has been working on this technology for awhile. Last year, Deutsche Welle interviewed me about it, asking if there are privacy questions when you are surreptitiously watched and profiled in order for companies to better target ads specifically at you. There are a variety of privacy and civil liberty questions when video surveillance, especially surreptitious surveillance, is used. For instance, is there any way for me to opt-out? Or will they gather data on people who walk by ignoring the billboard, as well? This is yet another situation where entities seek to watch you, profile you, track you, and brush off valid questions about privacy and civil rights by saying, “Trust us.”
I would find it invasive if I learned that stopping in front of a billboard meant I was agreeing to be recorded and profiled. There are no signs to inform people that they are under surveillance by marketing companies, who will see the video, or if and for how long the data will be kept.
How soon will it be before the government get involved? The thinking would be along these lines: “Well, these cameras are already in billboards, and people have implicitly agreed to the surveillance. So, let’s turn these billboard cameras into government surveillance cameras. Let’s individually identify and track people with these marketing cameras and facial recognition systems. Let’s determine if any of these people are acting suspiciously.”
The D.C. government is trying to do that now with cameras set up in public schools, public housing, along the highways, etc. These cameras were set up for specific purposes. Parents and residents near these roads agreed to these cameras to help with traffic jams and schoolyard fights, not to help the D.C. homeland security agency turn these areas into suspicious places. Yet, because the cameras are already there, the D.C. government wants bring them under the homeland security umbrella and expand their purposes to all activity the government determines to be suspect. Learn more about the D.C. proposal here. More of my thoughts on facial recognition in this GCN interview.