OOH dear! Will privacy fears prevail as digital ad displays get smarter?

Today’s digital out-of-home displays can sense gender, age and even emotions of viewers so privacy fears need careful consideration. Andrew Hennigan reports

Next time you are looking at a digital out-of-home (OOH) advertising display in a station, airport or shopping mall it might just be looking back at you.

Many companies are now offering or developing technologies that can sense who is standing in front of a display, count them, identify their gender, sense the approximate age, measure how long they look at the display and even gauge their emotions.

In France Quividi provides the technology for many in-store and out-of-home displays. This technology uses a video camera and machine vision software that can determine gender, age, distance, attention time and mood. In the US, an MIT Lab spinoff called Affectiva also uses facial analysis technology to sense emotions in real time, originally in the advertising lab and field tests but now also in OOH displays. In Poland a startup called Neurohm is also using biometric sensing combined with reaction time measurement and eye tracking to determine the exact area of a display that has provoked certain emotions.

One of the companies already using audience-sensing technology in the field is Grandi Stazioni SpA, the subsidiary of Italian State Railways that manages the country’s main train stations.

“We have been using Quividi software in 150 advertising displays in five major stations since 2013,” says Marco Orlandi, head of digital media development, Grandi Stazioni SpA.

The organisation had several goals:

  1. Measure the total audience of each screen and station

  2. Evaluate conversion rates, dwell times and attention times in order to fine-tune display positions

  3. Identify demographics which led to targeted campaigns that engaged with audiences

Grandi Stazioni is using the data from the displays to better understand customer behaviour by evaluating the impact on footfall and attention from events like a new retail outlet or a change in the train timetable.

The data is also useful for integrating the displays with real-time bidding technology.

“Thanks to the real-time information provided by the audience detection systems, part of our schedule will be sold through programmatic platforms,” Orlandi says.

However, Grandi Stazioni is approaching privacy issues carefully and in line with national regulations. 

“We have chosen products already certified by the national privacy authority which are based on anonymous video analytics that are not enabled to store and record any personal data,” he says.

Herein lies a lesson for advertisers: the problem lies not in what the display unit detects but what happens to the data.  Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will address this by restricting the way sensitive data can be collected, stored and shared. 

“Basically data privacy risk minimisation will depend upon the data types and flows, with each actor needing to take responsibility for its fair share of the process,” says Aurélie Pols, Chief Visionary Officer at the data privacy consultancy Mind Your Privacy.

To complicate matters, GDPR has added biometric data to the class of sensitive data for which explicit consent will be required for storage and reuse.

Pols outlines two display scenarios, one where problems are unlikely to arise, the other with potentially nightmarish consequences.

Simple scenario:A person passes in front of a display, looking grim. The display shows an ad to go to the Canary Islands, possibly with a promotional code. It doesn’t store any facial features and it’s up to the person to take advantage of the code.

Complicated scenario:The person walks in front of a display, which picks up geo-location data that is shared with the mobile service provider. The person’s facial expression is scanned. An algorithm then determines that the person needs a holiday and the provider pushes a text message with a promotional code for a trip to Lanzarote.  Multiple actors share the person’s facial data; the viewer has no knowledge of where the data is held or how it will be used.

Privacy regulation and industry best practices may address fears of personal data being misused, but many consumers may still feel that these ads are just too creepy. The trick will be for firms to adopt a highly transparent light touch.

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