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What Can Digital Out of Home Advertising Learn from SideWalk Labs Controversy? Part 2

8 May 2019

This is a two-part article that explores the role of data privacy and citizen consultation in regard to the use of technology in public space. Part 1 explored the controversies of SideWalk Labs and Part 2 will delve deep into the learning for Digital Out of Home Advertising.

The issue of surveillance, data collection, and privacy in public spaces have been a persistent issue over the last few years, occupying the attention of consumers, researchers, law-makers, politicians and tech companies, with the pinnacle, the Facebook - Cambridge Analytica scandal. Consumers have become the product not merely the customer, with their data collected in a myriad of ways including Internet browsers, email, loyalty cards, weather apps, online maps, sat nav, smart speakers, and wearables to be not only utilized by companies but sold to third parties. Consequently as detailed in our Part 1 post about Sidewalk Labs and the collection and ownership of data collected in public spaces, it follows that citizens have been questioning the issue of data tracking by smart devices such as electronic billboards.

Digital out of home advertising attracted controversy in Oslo and Italy for its facial tracking abilities. In Oslo, a restaurant called Peppe’s Pizza had its usage of such billboards exposed due to a crashed digital advertisement that revealed the coding behind its facial recognition system. The billboard includes a camera and facial recognition software that can register gender, whether the watcher is young or an adult, facial expression, whether they wear glasses. and duration of time spent at the billboard.


Image source: Linus Tech Tips

The use of facial recognition technology is problematic in that citizens (assuming they are aware of the technology), cannot choose to consent or withdraw consent beyond excluding themselves from particular spaces - hardly a solution.

You Could be Identified By Your Anonymous Data

The issue is further compounded when you consider the multitude of seemingly disparate citizen data that can be collected in public spaces. With advertising connected to mobile phone data and a suite of emerging technologies including eye tracking, voice interaction and a multitude of ways to engage with people, the issue become more complex.

Research reveals that seemingly disparate pools of technically anonymized data can be combined to identify people with a high degree of accuracy.  A recent study by MIT researchers on the growing practice of compiling massive, anonymized datasets about people’s movement patterns revealed how this can happen. It was the first-ever analysis of so-called user “ matchability ” in two large-scale datasets from Singapore, one from a mobile network operator and one from a local transportation system. A statistical model tracked location stamps of users in both datasets and provides a probability that data points in both sets come from the same person. In experiments, the researchers found the model could match around 17% of individuals in one week’s worth of data and more than 55% of individuals after one month of collected data.

The researchers told MIT News, “In publishing the results — and, in particular, the consequences of de-anonymizing data — we felt a bit like ‘white hat’ or ‘ethical’ hackers,” adds co-author Carlo Ratti, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. “We felt that it was important to warn people about these new possibilities [of data merging] and [to consider] how we might regulate it.

Clarity is Needed on What Data is Collected, Why, and to Whom it Belongs

In New York, LinkNYC has rolled out thousands of smart kiosks called Links across the city with plans to install over 7,500 across the five boroughs. Each provides free high-speed Wi-Fi, phone calls to anywhere in the U.S., device charging, a touch screen tablet for access to city services, maps and directions, and a 911 Emergency Call button. Links also have two 55” high-definition digital screens that are used for both public service announcements and advertising. Critics have been questioning the data that these collected which as detailed in LinkNYC’s privacy policy includes “MAC address (anonymized), IP address, browser type and version, time zone setting, browser plug-in types and versions, operating system and platform, device type, and device identifiers"

In response to criticism by citizens and the formation of lobby group Rethink LinkNYC and analysis by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, LinkNYC has responded by developing a revised LinkNYC privacy policy, the creation of a Chief Privacy Officer role, and a new city taskforce .

There have been some efforts in other cities to engage with some of the issues the arise from digital billboards. The City of Boston created Beta Blocks a couple of years ago,  new civic experimentation process to build more meaningful relationships between communities that have a challenge and the companies, researchers, designers, and artists. One of their public events was Meet the Kiosks, an opportunity for discussion between kiosk makers and members of the public which included discussion about the challenges and opportunities kiosks present by members of the academic and non-profit community. It's an example of citizen engagement that should be commended.

HYGH Believes Citizens Should Set the Agenda

Technology is moving fast and DOOH advertising has amply demonstrated its value to advertisers and screen providers. While it may be an uncomfortable truth for those in the nascent sector of adtech, these disputes highlight the importance of citizen engagement - and the opportunity for critical debate around the implementation of smart city technology. This is a discussion that is just beginning and companies that anticipate challenges and actively involve the people in the cities they place their products will be most likely to profit from citizen support. We have the opportunity to be the good guys here, before its too late.

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