High­way Bill­boards Are Watch­ing You

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - AUTOMOTIVE - By Eve­lyn Kan­ter Mo­tor Mat­ters

"Here's look­ing at you, kid." When ac­tor Humphrey Bog­art ut­tered that fa­mous movie line to ac­tress In­grid Bergman in "Casablanca," one of the great­est films of all time, never would I have imag­ined a high­way bill­board could whis­per that line in my mind: But it's true, like our cars and our phones, bill­boards are get­ting "smart."

Our ve­hi­cles al­ready watch around us to warn about a driver ap­proach­ing our blind spot or slow­ing down ahead of us, or alert us if we are drift­ing out of our lane. Ford's My Key sys­tem can warn a par­ent when a young driver is driv­ing faster or far­ther than parental set­tings; GM's OnS­tar, and sim­i­lar sys­tems with dif­fer­ent names from dif­fer­ent name­plates watch our brak­ing, steer­ing, and airbags to alert Emer­gency Re­spon­ders in the event of an ac­ci­dent. And GPS helps us drive more safely and ef­fi­ciently by watch­ing the road ahead for traf­fic de­lays, and rec­om­mend­ing al­ter­nate routes. These are all well-known high­tech fea­tures we rely on.

But a new gen­er­a­tion of bill­boards is watch­ing us se­cretly, via track­ing tech­nol­ogy and data an­a­lyt­ics, as part of a suite called "RADAR."

The sys­tem re­port­edly taps into your mo­bile phone sig­nals to an­a­lyze cer­tain data from your mo­bile phone -- age, gen­der, and lo­ca­tion -- which can then be sold to ad­ver­tis­ers. Data is col­lected in ag­gre­gate, mean­ing it is dis­as­so­ci­ated from any unique per­sonal data.

The "smart" bill­boards are be­ing road-tested now by the gi­ant bill­board com­pany Clear Chan­nel Out­door Amer­i­cas in ma­jor mar­kets, in­clud­ing New York and Los An­ge­les, with plans to ex­pand to ad­di­tional, smaller ci­ties.

Un­like cam­eras al­ready widely in use, such as those track­ing road­way tolls, "smart" bill­boards track traf­fic pat­terns anony­mously and record only what pass­ing ve­hi­cles do next in re­gards to that bill­board ad. So says Clear Chan­nel, which also says that in a re­cent test in Or­lando, nearly half those who saw a par­tic­u­lar bill­board ad for a spe­cific brand of shoes were an­a­lyzed as more likely to buy shoes.

But how does Clear Chan­nel know I buy shoes af­ter pass­ing a bill­board for shoes with­out track­ing the spe­cific ac­tions I take on my phone con­nected to my ve­hi­cle's on­board nav­i­ga­tion/en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem? Or, even more dis­com­fort­ing, af­ter I re­move my phone from the ve­hi­cle and take it home, to the of­fice, or to a par­ent-teacher con­fer­ence?

Sup­pose a mo­bile user has installed the "Placed" paid track­ing app on their phone, and he or she passes a bill­board for a new bar in town; the app will know and be able to re­port whether the user ever ends up try­ing out the venue. Be­yond com­mu­ni­cat­ing via an installed track­ing app, how a par­tic­u­lar bill­board ad does its job by iden­ti­fy­ing who passes it and whether they then buy the prod­uct, look it up online, or even text or email about it with their friends, is still not com­pletely clear.

Since the track­ing de­vice is em­bed­ded some­where on a gi­ant bill­board we drive past at speeds of 65 mph -- more or less -- there's no way to know which bill­boards are watch­ing us. Au­tomak­ers would have to add that warn­ing to their con­nec­tiv­ity sys­tems, or we would have to turn off our con­nected mo­bile de­vices, nei­ther of which is likely.

It's noth­ing new for ad­ver­tis­ers to track the pop­u­lar­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of their ads, as all the an­nual hoopla about the pop­u­lar­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of their Su­per Bowl ads at­tests. Many of those ads, and boasts about their pop­u­lar­ity, are by au­tomak­ers. That in­cludes their ads watched on YouTube long af­ter they are no longer on TV.

Some of the most pop­u­lar bill­boards in Times Square are the in­ter­ac­tive ones, with cam­eras pointed at passersby, who pose and wave and take pho­tos when­ever their pos­ing and wav­ing is flashed on the screen. But that is pub­licly known or pub­licly dis­played. These new Clear Chan­nel "smart" bill­boards are track­ing us with­out our knowl­edge.

I can delete the "cook­ies" on my com­puter installed by web sites I visit that track other web sites I visit, and I do that reg­u­larly, to pro­tect my pri­vacy.

But how do you delete Clear Chan­nel from your ve­hi­cle's con­nec­tiv­ity sys­tem to pre­vent it from track­ing what bill­boards you have passed and what you might do af­ter notic­ing a par­tic­u­lar ad? Should I turn off my phone?

These "smart" bill­boards with se­cret track­ing are not lim­ited to high­ways. Bill­boards are ev­ery­where and any­where, and in all sizes, from the jum­botrons in Times Square to those across the street from your su­per­mar­ket or your child's school. Here's look­ing at you, every­body.

Copy­right, Mo­tor Mat­ters, 2016


These “smart” bill­boards with se­cret track­ing are not lim­ited to high­ways. Bill­boards are ev­ery­where and any­where, and in all sizes, from the jum­botrons in Times Square to those across the street from your su­per­mar­ket or your child’s school.

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