Friday, August 22, 2008

Are Cameras the New Cookies?

I just came across a New York Times article about billboards with cameras that track passersby.

These cameras are trained to detect when people are front of the billboard and analyze their facial features to determine age, gender, even race. In turn, the ad can be tailored to the audience.

Profile Me Not

Somehow the Times manages to find some average Joe consumers willing to go on record saying they don't mind -- "Someone down the street can watch you looking at it -- why not a camera?"

But the vast majority of those polled are creeped out by this practice.

Nonetheless, the fact that some people out there are ok with it will only give hope to companies like the one rolling out these boards. It won't be long before we reach Minority Report state -- remember when Tom Cruise is walking through the mall and the ads are calling out to him by name?

Now, I'm all for making traditional media more accountable but this seems to be crossing the line. I'd much rather see consumer-initiated out-of-home ads where people can interact with the screen and self-profile.

I wonder if people would find this practice more acceptable if the cameras weren't being used to profile people but solely to count traffic?

Tracking vs. Targeting

There's lots of discussion right now about how the ISP's and portals use data collected on the web, especially after the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (can someone please explain to me why those 2 are grouped together?) ordered 33 companies, including Google and Comcast, to provide details about how they are collecting and using personal (and non-personally identifiable) data.

Once again, the Times has good coverage of these developments. It points to a company called NebuAd which is working with the ISPs to gather intelligence on their users and behaviorally target ads to them.

In the early days of the web, tracking software was used solely to measure ad effectiveness (ie, counting impressions, clicks, and sales.) Again, like these new billboards, I wonder if people (and Congress) would be all up in arms with privacy concerns if the technology was only being used to track and not target?

Power to the People

At the end of the day, I don't think it matters how companies use the data they collect -- tracking, targeting, whatever. What matters is if and how they obtain consent from consumers to do it.

Most people today are not creeped out by the fact that a company might know something intimate about them. Heck, everyone and their mother (including mine as of last week) has a Facebook or MySpace profile telling the world their most intimate secrets, er... status updates.

It only becomes creepy when they don't know or aren't asked about how that information is being used. As evidence, look no further than Facebook's debacles rolling out the news feed (which everyone loves now) and Beacon (which will take some time to catch on).

I'm not sure how companies like Quividi (which is behind the billboard cameras) will be able to inform and consent passersby -- something tells me a footnote at the bottom of each board isn't going to cut it. That said, since they're a relatively small company with very few boards, they may be able to get away with it. You can bet the minute Clear Channel rolls something like this out, though, the general public (and Congress) will be all over it like stink on a monkey.

As far as the online ad world goes, most of the behavioral targeting companies have very clear opt-outs and stated privacy policies. And I think consumers are starting to realize the value in having ads that are relevant to them (we can all thank Google for that) as opposed to what they had before -- punch the monkey, smiley central, etc.

However, I staunchly believe the best (and only) policy is a true opt-in. And I'll take it one step further -- it's not enough to get people to opt-in, we have to cut them in. That's right, we have to give them a cut of the action. They know someone's getting rich off these ads -- whether it be the website they're visiting or the advertiser they're seeing, they know someone's making money at their expense.

My solution? Stay tuned...

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