‘They’re spy­ing on you in your own neigh­bor­hood’

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - David Lazarus’ col­umn runs Tues­days and Fri­days. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Chan­nel 5 and on Twit­ter @david­laz. Send your tips to david.lazarus@la­times.com. DAVID LAZARUS

Clear Chan­nel Out­door, one of the world’s largest bill­board com­pa­nies, will in com­ing days roll out tech­nol­ogy across Europe ca­pa­ble of let­ting ad­ver­tis­ers know where peo­ple go and what they do af­ter see­ing a par­tic­u­lar bill­board. Sounds creepy, no? Well, brace your­self. Clear Chan­nel has been qui­etly us­ing this tech­nol­ogy in the United States for the last four years, in­clud­ing in Los An­ge­les.

“They’re spy­ing on you in your own neigh­bor­hood,” said Jeff Ch­ester, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy.

“You don’t know it’s hap­pen­ing,” he told me. “You don’t know who they’re shar­ing the in­for­ma­tion with.”

Ch­ester and other pri­vacy ad­vo­cates said Clear Chan­nel’s sys­tem is an ex­am­ple of how pri­vate com­pa­nies are build­ing out com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance net­works right un­der our noses.

“The scary thing is that there are so many com­pa­nies han­dling dif­fer­ent pieces of this, the ecosys­tem is enor­mous,” said Alan But­ler, in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and gen­eral coun­sel for the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter in Washington, D.C.

“All this data is be­ing col­lected and we have no idea how it’s be­ing used,” he said.

Clear Chan­nel isn’t alone in de­vel­op­ing what’s known as “out of home mar­ket­ing” — a de­cid­edly be­nign term for such a po­ten­tially in­va­sive prac­tice.

Dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies are rush­ing to in­stall sim­i­lar sys­tems in malls, sub­ways and other crowded venues. The aim is not just to see where you go and what you do but also to prompt im­pulse pur­chases at nearby mer­chants.

If you’re like me, the im­age that comes to mind is that scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Mi­nor­ity Re­port” where Tom Cruise is rec­og­nized and mar­keted to as he passes a se­ries of dig­i­tal bill­boards.

Cur­rent out-of-home mar­ket­ing tech­nol­ogy isn’t like that — yet. But ex­perts say it’s just a mater of time.

“We’re al­ready used to be­ing tracked on­line,” said Lori B. An­drews, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence, Law and Tech­nol­ogy at the Illi­nois In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. “Now it’s bleed­ing into the real world.”

Clear Chan­nel is an es­pe­cially pow­er­ful force in this field be­cause its more than 500,000 print and dig­i­tal bill­boards world­wide pro­vide a far-reach­ing foun­da­tion from which to track passers-by and share data with mar­ket­ing part­ners.

The com­pany calls its tech­nol­ogy Radar. The sys­tem, Clear Chan­nel says, “lever­ages anony­mous, ag­gre­gated mo­bile lo­ca­tion data to help ad­ver­tis­ers un­der­stand con­sumer mo­bil­ity, be­hav­ior and true cam­paign im­pact.”

An an­i­mated video for Radar ap­pears to de­pict peo­ple on foot and in cars pass­ing a Clear Chan­nel bill­board and con­nect­ing au­to­mat­i­cally via Wi-Fi, pro­vid­ing mar­keters with “highly cus­tom­ized so­lu­tions” to help them “con­nect with the right cus­tomers at the right time and place.” That’s a bit misleading. Ja­son King, a Clear Chan­nel spokesman, ac­knowl­edged to me that the com­pany “does not equip its bill­boards with tech­nol­ogy aimed at track­ing in­di­vid­u­als.”

Rather, Clear Chan­nel gath­ers lo­ca­tion and track­ing in­for­ma­tion from mul­ti­ple sources — apps, data firms — and then an­a­lyzes the info for in­sights about how peo­ple be­have af­ter pass­ing a Clear Chan­nel bill­board.

The idea is to be able to tell ad­ver­tis­ing clients that a con­sumer is likely to visit the client’s business af­ter be­ing ex­posed to a bill­board tout­ing the client’s prod­ucts or ser­vices, or to mar­ket to that con­sumer based on their lo­ca­tion.

King said Radar “helps ad­ver­tis­ers un­der­stand what hap­pens af­ter some­one sees their ad.”

Wire­less com­pa­nies for years have been us­ing “ge­olo­ca­tion” data from smart­phones to bol­ster ad­ver­tis­ers’ mar­ket­ing cam­paigns.

Ba­si­cally, if you carry a phone, your where­abouts are known to your wire­less provider ev­ery sec­ond of the day — and the com­pa­nies make money sell­ing that info to others.

Clear Chan­nel is tak­ing this ca­pa­bil­ity up a level by cre­at­ing a bridge be­tween a con­sumer’s lo­ca­tion and their ex­po­sure to an out­door mar­ket­ing pitch.

Now ad­ver­tis­ers can go beyond just pas­sively plas­ter­ing a mes­sage on a bill­board. They can fol­low you af­ter you’ve seen the ad, and watch where you go and what you do. Clear Chan­nel is be­ing disin­gen­u­ous when it in­sists all data col­lected as part of Radar is anony­mous, pri­vacy ex­perts say.

Kyle M.L. Jones, an In­di­ana Univer­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor who fo­cuses on data mining, said that for a com­pany to tar­get you with ad­ver­tis­ing, it has to know who you are and have an idea about your per­sonal tastes.

Even if you’re iden­ti­fied only by a num­ber af­fil­i­ated with your phone, rather than by your name, it’s not dif­fi­cult to ex­trap­o­late from there if a more ro­bust mar­ket­ing pro­file is de­sired.

“Enough of a mix­ture of geo­graphic, be­hav­ioral and de­mo­graphic data will al­most in­evitably open up op­por­tu­ni­ties for re-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Jones said. “It’s hard to know what their pri­vacy-pro­tect­ing prac­tices are, but their prac­tices have risk.”

Al­though Clear Chan­nel’s King played down the “Mi­nor­ity Re­port” im­pli­ca­tions of Radar, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Wil­liam Ec­cle­share, told the Fi­nan­cial Times that the Septem­ber in­tro­duc­tion of Radar in Europe will cre­ate a host of eye-open­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­ver­tis­ers.

“We can fol­low your move­ment to a store,” he said. “We can fol­low what you pur­chase. And yes, we can look at your view­ing habits that evening if you pass an ad for a Net­flix show.”

For busi­nesses, that’s pretty ex­cit­ing. For con­sumers, it should send a shiver down your spine. Nanda Ku­mar, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of in­for­ma­tion sys­tems at New York’s Baruch Col­lege, said “lack­lus­ter pri­vacy laws” are partly to blame for com­pa­nies feel­ing free to mon­i­tor con­sumers as they go about their daily af­fairs.

Many out-of-home­mar­ket­ing busi­nesses “take in­di­vid­u­als’ pri­vacy for granted and col­lect in­for­ma­tion from them opaquely with­out pro­vid­ing con­sumers any rea­son­able ways to con­trol the flow of their data,” he said.

I wrote last week about how dif­fi­cult some com­pa­nies make it to opt out of data shar­ing. Clear Chan­nel is no ex­cep­tion.

The com­pany’s pri­vacy pol­icy says it’s up to in­di­vid­ual con­sumers to “re­fer to your de­vice’s or browser’s tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion for in­struc­tions on how to delete and dis­able all or some cook­ies, and other track­ing tools, as avail­able, in­clud­ing how to re­set your ad­ver­tis­ing iden­ti­fiers and limit ad­ver­tis­ing track­ing.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

The pri­vacy pol­icy also ac­knowl­edges that even though Clear Chan­nel pri­mar­ily re­lies on “de-iden­ti­fied” per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, it does in fact dis­close iden­ti­fi­able info to business part­ners.

This can in­clude your name, ad­dress, pur­chase his­tory, on­line be­hav­ior and “in­fer­ences drawn from any of the fore­go­ing to cre­ate a pro­file about a con­sumer re­flect­ing the con­sumer’s pref­er­ences, char­ac­ter­is­tics, psy­cho­log­i­cal trends, pre­dis­po­si­tions, be­hav­ior, at­ti­tudes, in­tel­li­gence, abil­i­ties and ap­ti­tudes.”

In­fer­ences about peo­ple’s in­tel­li­gence, pre­dis­po­si­tions and psy­cho­log­i­cal trends? Not so be­nign af­ter all. “When they made ‘Mi­nor­ity Re­port,’ it wasn’t sci­ence fic­tion,” said Ch­ester at the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­racy. “That scene was based on what they knew was ac­tu­ally com­ing.”

And here we are.

Kathy Willens As­so­ci­ated Press

COM­PA­NIES are build­ing com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance net­works un­der our noses, pri­vacy ad­vo­cates say.

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