Eye Open on you, the consumer

Advertising ventures into science fiction: When people look at a screen, it’s often looking back

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJanuary 19, 2014 

  • THE AGE OF SNOOPING

    Dozens of digital privacy groups have sprouted in the past decade. Their concerns started with online privacy but now include public data collection.

    In 2010, a group of eight digital rights and privacy organizations published a list of recommended guidelines about the use of digital signs for data collection.

    “Digital signage networks, if left unaddressed, have the potential to create a new form of secret and highly sophisticated marketing surveillance, with the prospect of unfairness, discrimination and abuses of personal information,” says the document, titled “Digital Signage Privacy Principles.”

    Recommended guidelines include:

    - Posted notification of the presence of information-gathering technology.

    - Deletion of any data identifiable with an individual within 14 days.

    - Making advertiser privacy policies available.

    - Immediate deletion of any data or images collected on children who appear to be younger than 13.

    - No digital signage in sensitive areas such as bathrooms, health care facilities or areas where children congregate.

    - No displaying of images or data about people.

    The organizations endorsing the rules are the World Privacy Forum, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Patient Privacy Rights, Privacy Activism, Privacy Lives and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

  • ABOUT ZACH KYLE

    Zach joined the Idaho Statesman business team in April after working for five years at the Post Register in Idaho Falls. He covers real estate, banking, and business regulation and legislation. He dabbles in agriculture, technology and the personalities behind Treasure Valley small businesses.

Big Brother is watching, and he wants to sell you shoes.

Each day, advertisers are developing new ways to glean information that will help them target what ads you are most likely to respond to, from your basic information — gender and age — to more personal data, such as your name, address and buying history.

Websites such as Amazon, Google and Facebook display ads or suggest products based on user preferences and search histories.

Boise advertising company Eye Open Network isn’t collecting customer data — at least not yet. The company runs a closed-loop ad system appearing on screens in businesses throughout the Treasure Valley.

Six TVs in the network are fitted with digital cameras programmed to recognize when a face focuses on the screen. The system tallies how many views each ad receives, allowing each of the network’s 100 subscribers to know the exact reach of their ads.

Eye Open Network owner Terry Adsitt said his algorithm places boxes over faces similar to those appearing on photos on Facebook as users tag them.

“The difference is Facebook asks you if you want to tag Jimmy in the photo,” Adsitt said. “Facebook can take it down to a granular level where they know the people in the pictures. What I look at isn’t recorded and looks more like a black-and-white where I can identify somebody as a human, but not as a name.”

Adsitt came up with the idea while shopping for ads to buy for his wife’s tanning salon. He said TV and radio ad representatives indicated that their ads reach huge audiences, but Adsitt wasn’t buying it. He thought the data was old and didn’t reflect growing media outlets that draw from traditional media outlets, such as Netflix and satellite radio.

“How do we ensure there’s a connection?” Adsitt said. “(The Eye Open Network headcount) is fighting technology with technology.”

A former Microsoft software developer and Hewlett-Packard contractor, Adsitt started Eye Open in 2011. He’s the only employee, though he works with several people with film and advertising expertise.

Counting faces is only one piece of Adsitt’s business. The network records the ads and displays them for a $175 startup fee and a $175 monthly subscription. The startup fee includes recording the ad. Subscribers then own the ad and are free to post it on websites or wherever else they want, Adsitt said.

Eye Open also uses a GPS system to ensure that businesses won’t run ads for competitors within a 10-mile radius. That allows the network to run ads from businesses all over the Valley without, say, a sandwich shop showing ads for the sub shop down the street.

Eye Open Network isn’t gathering personal information, but other advertisers around the nation are gathering it to aggregate data, said Jay Larsen, president of the Idaho Technology Council.

Some advertising companies are placing digital ad screens in public places — think malls and airports — that use algorithms that estimate gender, age and other personal information, he said. They collect data from people standing or walking nearby and display ads best fitting the predominant demographic.

Ads for baby products are more effective on 30-year- old women than 60-year-old men, for instance. Paintball guns are better marketed to 20-year-old guys than to their mothers.

Advertisers already have the technology to record data on an individual level, and the day is coming when cameras can compile customer dossiers in seconds, setting the stage for a legal battle over privacy, Larsen said.

“Information is power,” he said. “Those privacy lines will be pushed. They are already being pushed.”

Larsen already doesn’t like that Netflix knows what movies he likes, but at least he consents to it when he accepts the user agreement. He thinks more invasive data collection could come to stores in five or 10 years.

“What Google people are saying is there will be more transactional opportunities with robotics,” Larsen said. “What if robots scan you at the checkout counter? What if they have facial recognition and are able to gather a lot of analytics around it? They will gather a lot more information that will be massaged and worked on as opposed to a teller checking someone out.”

Adsitt said he’d consider tracking gender and age data, but that’s where he draws the line, for both ethical and legal reasons.

Some people are unduly paranoid at the idea that a camera is in the room, Adsitt said. In an era of government snooping and Amazon suggesting that you buy another book by your favorite author, he understands the concern.

“Often, there’s a science fiction that’s in the perceiver’s mind, that, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a camera on me,’ ” Adsitt said. “But there are aspects that will come in the future very soon.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464,Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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