The One-Way-Mirror Society – Privacy Implications of Surveillance Monitoring Networks

Do you know how often your actions are being monitored? Security and surveillance cameras are increasingly becoming part of our everyday lives; they are used in most stores and many of the offices we visit, they monitor the exteriors buildings, watch gates, and storage areas, they are mounted on street lights and alongside roads to capture traffic violations, and more. But these devices have become far more sophisticated than you may realize.

In technical parlance these monitoring tools are included under the umbrella term digital signage networks, which essentially means they belong to a network of customizable digital capturing devices and digital display devices can be controlled using a computer. Some are simple devices that simply count the number of people or cars that pass, some are advanced facial recognition cameras that capture identities, gender, age, behaviors and other detailed information about consumers.

Your privacy depends on who can access to the content collected through these forms of monitoring, and what they can do with that information.

A report(PDF) by the World Privacy Forum delves into the inherent privacy risks associated with these devices, and what these risks may mean to you. It’s a sobering read on a topic few spend much time pondering.

Here are excerpts from that report:

…While most consumers understand a need for security cameras, few expect that the video screen they are watching, the kiosk they are typing on, or the game billboard they are interacting with is watching them while gathering copious images and behavioral and demographic information. This is creating a one-way-mirror society with no notice or opportunity for consumers to consent to being monitored in retail, public, and other spaces or to consent to having their behavior analyzed for marketing and profit.

The privacy problems inherent in these networks are profound, and to date these issues have not been adequately addressed by anyone. Digital signage networks, if left unaddressed, will very likely comprise a new form of sophisticated marketing surveillance leading to abuses of the collected information….

….One of the primary selling points for those wanting to deploy digital signage is that the screens are not just a one-way technology going from screen to consumer. The most advanced digital signage installations have screens concealing a host of technologies that gather information from the rooms they are placed in and the people who come within view of the screens, and then respond accordingly, often instantly. Digital signs can record the customers near them, monitor room temperature, check carbon dioxide levels, and more. For example, it is now an unremarkable feature for a digital signage installation to show ads targeted to the specific gender or age of a person looking at the screen as the person is standing in front of it…. The technology has reportedly reached about a 90 percent accuracy rate….

Summary of Recommendations

Principal preliminary recommendations discussed in the report include:

  • Better notice and disclosure to consumers
  • No one-sided industry self regulation
  • No price or other unfair discrimination
  • The full set of Fair Information Practices must apply for compiled information
  • Notice given to consumers about subpoenas for their information
  • Prohibitions on digital signage in bathrooms, health facilities, etc.
  • More robust consumer choices regarding data capture and use from signage
  • Special rules for collection and use of pictures and information about children

There is nothing inherently wrong in marketers wanting to customize ads to best appeal to a specific consumer, but it is fraught with pitfalls and to mitigate these risks there must be greater transparency for consumers about what tracking is occurring, as well as and clear consumer choices for how their information is used. And, there should be a watchdog organization ensuring consumers rights are protected.

Read the full report(PDF).



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