Highways and interstates across the country may soon be home to giant surveillance screens that track each traveler and passerby. The catch? These ‘screens’ are actually just billboards, and citizens have no way of knowing which roadside advertisements are just that, and which are also analyzing their mobile activity.
Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, Inc. — the country’s oldest outdoor advertising company, and one of the largest in the world — announced on Monday that they will begin to track demographic data of users. Clear Channel is partnering with AT&T (a company that we know is already monitoring our online activity), among others.
So what type of data are they gathering? As scandalous as it would be, no, the billboards are not masking Big Brother-esque video cameras. Instead, the technology will use traveler’s mobile devices to glean information about their activity, which is arguably still scandalous. Clear Channel wants to know who sees their advertisements, where they’re going, and what they do afterward. They claim to only be collecting the types of data that mobile advertisers have already been able to obtain. As the Senior Vice President for Research and Insights at Clear Channel commented to The New York Times, “It’s easy to forget that we’re just tapping into an existing data ecosystem.” Still, many feel uncomfortable with this new technology, which demonstrates that Clear Channel and its partners are navigating ambiguous ethical tech territory. That same employee also remarked that this practice “does sound a bit creepy.”
Using advertising to understand and influence consumer behavior is no new phenomenon. Many companies, such as Facebook or Target, gather and sell consumer data. Both track habits and analyze the resulting patterns. The difference? These companies generally gain information straight from the consumer, within the setting of that company. An individual can choose not to join Facebook, or not to shop at Target. Billboard intelligence pivots this technique into a new territory: the open road. To expect people to opt out of travel and commute is unrealistic. One possible upside? Drivers finally turning off their phones on the road.