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Highway Billboards Secretly Watching You

By Evelyn Kanter, April 9th, 2016

"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 high-tech 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.

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