Love them or hate them, advertisements are part of how businesses market themselves and are here to stay. What may not be so usual is that although ads are made to be watched by potential consumers, the ads may be watching back.
If that sounds bizarre, consider what Corinne Purtill reported in a piece for the atlantic.com penned six months back: London pedestrians that summer who glanced at posters for an innocuous coffee brand called Bahio probably didn't realize they were supplying data for what its creators are calling "the world's first-ever artificially intelligent poster campaign."
The product of M&C Saatchi, Posterscope, and Clear Channel, the posters collected more than 42,000 reactions over summer, according to The Guardian. In response to privacy concerns, M&C Saatchi insists that the company did not save "anything recognizable."
One major criticism is that ads like these further erode individual privacy and consumers' ability to choose who gets their data. Use of facial technology is booming, from stores that recognize frequent shoppers' faces to Facebook's automatic tagging of people in your photos.
Europe has taken a more skeptical view of this technology but in the U.S., regulation has been much slower in coming. There are no federal laws governing the use of facial-recognition technology (Texas and Illinois have passed laws barring its use without explicit consumer consent).
Purtill concluded that the issue's not going away and there seems to be much evidence to that effect. Three years back, Alaric Penname for cracked.com wrote an article titled 'The 5 Creepiest Ways Major Companies Are Watching You'. They are as summarized below:
1. Marketing Firms That Track Your Health Problems
Epic, a New York-based marketing firm, was reportedly caught using ads spread out over approximately 24,000 websites to spy on people's browser history and collect information about potential health problems to more efficiently target their advertisements. This despite the fact that under normal circumstances medical records and other health-related information is supposed to be confidential.
2. Websites That Deliver Ads Depending on How Expensive Your Computer Is
Orbitz (a travel agency website) was reported to have begun using software that determines what type of computer a customer is using to browse its website, and is delivering ads to each customer based on how much that particular computer costs - for example, whether Mac or PC.
So in the future, if you're viewing a website from a $2,000 MacBook Pro, you might start seeing ads for jewelers, luxury sedans, and HBO subscriptions.
3. Products That Relay Your Location to Advertisers
An example was Nestlé's "We Will Find You" campaign. Step one was to put GPS tracking devices into random candy wrappers. Then, once the device was found and activated, a team of A-Team chocolate bar ninjas would track down the signal in a helicopter to assault the person who'd discovered it with a briefcase full of 10,000 pounds.
This illustrates that companies could use information on where you were when you purchased a product and where you went with it afterward to determine where to put up posters and billboards.
4. Mannequins That Watch You While You Shop
Already some stores have begun using the EyeSee Mannequin, a person-shaped plastic clothes hanger outfitted with cameras, microphones, and state-of-the-art facial recognition software meant to record and quantify shopper behavior in an effort to improve sales. The mannequins are also used to track and apprehend shoplifters.
The mannequins can also identify a person's age, gender, and race, as well as record how long people spend browsing specific products and even what language they're speaking, so the store knows what types of employees to hire.
5. TVs That Feed You Ads Based on What You're Doing on the Sofa
Verizon submitted a patent for a new cable box that uses infrared cameras and microphones to keep track of what you're doing while sitting through a TV program. According to the patent, the box is programmed to watch for specific activities, such as talking, laughing, singing, and playing an instrument, and will then show you commercials based on whatever it is you happen to be doing.
For example, if you're cuddling up next to your significant other on the couch, Verizon's cable box will take notice and play some commercials for flowers, romantic getaways, Righteous Brothers CDs, and condoms.
All five methods are creepy for sure - especially given how few people are aware that any of this is going on. So yes, your TV really is watching you... and reporting your habits to advertisers. Daniel Barker last November, in an article for naturalnews.com, reported that Vizio smart TVs have seemingly pushed the limits - watching you right back in a manner eerily close to Orwellian.
Barker reports that Vizio Smart TVs are designed to track your viewing habits so that the company can sell the information to advertisers - along with your IP address - who in turn can use that information to gain access to your home network. And what's even worse is the fact that these tracking features are vulnerable to hackers.
Vizio's actions appear to go beyond what others are doing in the emerging interactive television industry. Vizio rivals - Samsung and LG Electronics - only track users' viewing habits if customers choose to turn the feature on. And unlike Vizio, they don't appear to provide the information in a form that allows advertisers to reach users on other devices.
Vizio's technology works by analyzing snippets of the shows you're watching, whether on traditional television or streaming Internet services such as Netflix. Vizio determines the date, time, and channel of programs - as well as whether you watched them live or recorded. The viewing patterns are then connected your IP address - the Internet address that can be used to identify every device in a home, from your TV to a phone.
Vizio's "Smart Interactivity" tracking feature is already turned on by default when you purchase the TV - most people don't even know that the tracking feature exists, much less how to turn it off.
Cable TV companies and video rental companies are prohibited by law from selling information about the viewing habits of their customers. However, Vizio says that those laws - the Video Privacy Protection Act and cable subscriber protections - don't apply to its business.
Unsurprisingly, these actions have provoked the filing of a new lawsuit alleging that the data Vizio collects and shares on its customers' television viewing habits are insufficiently protected, allowing marketers to identify the customers by name.
According to the complaint, this violates the Video Privacy Protection Act, a law dating to the 1980s that restricted video-rental companies from sharing information on what its customers were watching. The law has been applied in a number of cases in the digital era. The suit also alleges that consumers were misled about how their data would be used, in violation of several California statutes.
And while you are out on the streets not watching TV, the situation hardly improves. 'Smart' billboards are even being programmed to 'follow' you, according to separate reports such as a recent rt.com article. Technology now allows such billboards to know where you've been and where you go after you see them. But exactly how would that work?
Advertising giant Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which owns tens of thousands of billboards across the country, announced in February that it would be debuting a new kind of consumer-tracking system called Radar.
"In aggregate, that data can then tell you information about what the average viewer of that billboard looks like," Andy Stevens, senior vice president for research and insights at Clear Channel Outdoor, told the New York Times. "Obviously, that's very valuable to an advertiser."
To take advantage of this trove of information, Clear Channel is partnering with AT&T Data Patterns, the telecom giant's data collection unit; Placed, which pays consumers for the right to track their movements; and PlaceIQ, which uses location information from apps to predict consumer behavior. All data used by Radar will be anonymous and aggregated, Clear Channel says, seeking to allay at least some concerns over privacy.
The system was recently tested in Orlando, Florida, displaying advertisements for the shoe company Toms. Clear Channel said that it used Radar to determine that people who saw the ads were 44 percent more likely to buy a pair of Toms shoes, according to Fortune.
While the new tech could help revamp billboards, which look like dinosaurs compared to the algorithmically sophisticated online ads, privacy advocates have concerns about tracking the online behavior of consumers in the real world.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of Center for Digital Democracy, told the NY Times that most people don't realize that they are being monitored, even if they agree to allow companies to track their behavior and movements."It is incredibly creepy, and it's the most recent intrusion into our privacy," he said.
Clear Channel is set to bring Radar to major population centers such as New York and Los Angeles and eventually plans to make the technology available across the country.
Privacy advocates, however, have long raised questions about mobile device tracking, particularly as companies have melded this location information with consumers' online behavior to form detailed audience profiles. Opponents contend that people often do not realize their location and behavior are being tracked, even if they have agreed at some point to allow companies to monitor them. And while nearly all of these companies claim that the data they collect is anonymous and aggregated and that consumers can opt out of tracking at any time -- privacy advocates are skeptical.
And the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been taking note - and remedial action - where compliance breaches have been reported or discovered. The FTC last year, for instance, settled charges against Nomi Technologies, a retail-tracking company that uses signals from shoppers' mobile phones to track their movements through stores. The agency claimed that the company had misled consumers about their opt-out options.
Clearly, though, Ads, websites, TVs, mannequins, computers, products and billboards have all developed intrusive and unwelcome eyes for the general public in record time. Perhaps even George Orwell himself would be in total disbelief at the magnitude of it all.