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Targeted Billboard Ads Are a Privacy Nightmare

A new report details ways advertisers are taking lessons learned from mobile ads to create intimately targeted ads in the physical world.

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Billed as Times Square’s largest and most expensive digital billboard, a new megascreen is debuted in front of the Marriott Marquis hotel on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Billed as Times Square’s largest and most expensive digital billboard, a new megascreen is debuted in front of the Marriott Marquis hotel on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

Advertisers are using insights gleaned from targeted digital advertising and applying it to create physical billboards capable of serving up tailored advertisements catered to the types of people viewing them. If that concept sounds eerily familiar that’s because it’s precisely the type of physical targeted advertising vision Tom Cruise encounters when walking through a shopping center in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi hit, The Minority Report.

Minority Report - Personal Advertising in the Future

These targeted billboard ads, which have existed for several years but are growing in popularity, are the subject of a new report from U.K., backed civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. The report, aptly called “The Streets are Watching,” provides a deep dive into ways a handful of companies use facial recognition enabled billboards to analyze the world around them and then use that data to serve up pedestrians personalized ads. Though advertisers favor the practice for its efficiency, the report argues the mass collection of users’ data poses an inherent privacy concern with high stakes risks. If normalized, the authors warn targeted billboard ads threaten to potentially do away with the idea of anonymously passing through a crowd.

“We’ve uncovered new ways in which millions of people’s movements and behaviours are tracked to target us with ads on the streets, resulting in some of the most intrusive advertising surveillance we’ve ever seen in the UK,” Jake Hurfurt, Big Brother Watch’s head of research and investigations said in a statement.


The report claims advertisers can analyze pedestrians based on their precise GPS location, gender and age demographics, and behavioral data—like how they interact with certain apps—to create tailored advertiser profiles. Though sophisticated targeted advertising on mobile phones has become the defacto standard of modern life, advertisers want to apply that same framework to physical billboards.

“These invasive profiling techniques have been used for years to deliver targeted ads on the internet and mobile phones,” Big Brother Watch said in a press release. “Now they are deciding which adverts people see while walking down the high street. The Internet’s intrusive advertising has reached out of the screen and into the real world.”


The report digs deep into a handful of companies creating digital billboards with high quality cameras capable of detecting human faces. Some of those companies, the report notes, use facial recognition software to determine demographic and even emotional details of the users in front of users gazing at content. In other cases, facial recognition can be used to determine whether or not a viewer is actively looking at a certain advertisement or not.

In recent years, Big Brother Watch says billboard facial recognition tech was used in ad campaigns for the Emoji movie, an anti-suicide charity, a Royal Navy recruitment drive and for an organization raising awareness around prostate cancer, amongst other cases. Other billboards in busy pedestrian areas reportedly change their advertisements based on the perceived emotional state and gender make up of crowds passing by. Most people, all the while, remain unaware they were ever scanned.

“Going about the world with the feeling that cameras are not just recording video but analysing you as a person to shape your reality is an uncomfortable concept,” the report reads. “This data is being gathered not just to work out if an ad campaign was successful but to alter how people experience reality without their explicit consent, all in an attempt to make more sale.”

These types of face scanning tools, though more accurate than they were several years ago, are still far from perfect, particularly when used outside of highly controlled test environments. Countless studies have shown those inaccuracies are amplified for non-white people. Those inaccuracies in demographic profiling, the report notes, can potentially reinforce stereotypes and lead to awkward, embarrassing encounters if a system happens to serve an ad based on an incorrect profile.


ALFI, one of the companies highlighted in the report, reportedly sells a “plug and play” computer vision tool to advertisers which uses an algorithm to analyze “small facial cues and perceptual details that make potential customers a good candidate for a particular product.” The company’s product, according to the report, claims to be compatible with many major digital billboards on the market. Last year the company reportedly provided Uber and Lyft drivers around 10,000 facial recognition equipped tablets in an effort to serve passengers personalized advertisements. That creep into transportation services drew criticism from activists and prominent lawmakers like Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar who wrote letters to Uber and Lyft expressing privacy concerns.

ALFI did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

The report goes on to highlight two prominent U.K. billboard owners, Ocean Outdoor and Clear Channel, who both reportedly utilize face scanning tech from a French company called Quividi. That firm claims its products can detect gender, age within five years, up to 100 faces in a crowd at the same time, and the amount of time someone spends looking at a billboard screen. Quividi, according to the report, can “see you coming” and then adjusts its ads at just the right time.


In a email sent to Gizmodo, a Quividi spokesperson took issue with the reports characterization of the firm as a surveillance company and said it has always operated responsibly.

“We don’t say, like many of our competitors, that we don’t process personal data and, as such, that we fall outside the GDPR,” the spokesperson said. “The vast majority of privacy authorities globally consider that processing an image with the face of someone is a processing of personal data. As such, we fall within the GDPR [The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation] (and GDPR-like legislation).”


The Quividi spokesperson went on to say its technology cannot identify individuals, “either in absolute terms (full identity) or in terms of repeated exposure.” The company said that distinction means its tech should be described as “face detection” rather than “facial recognition.”

Big Brother Watch highlights fundamental issues around “blanket consent” once relegated primarily to digital ecosystems. Now, with the rise of digital billboards, those same concerns increasingly apply to pedestrians simply trying to make their way home or around town. However, while smartphone users could theoretically adjust certain privacy settings to reduce their surveillance footprint, the same can’t necessarily be said for pedestrians in public spaces.


“Consent cannot be meaningfully given to any of these data processes, as an individual is often in the sight of the cameras linked to the billboards or tablets before they are alerted to the processing and have the option to walk away,” the report reads.

“This data is being gathered not just to work out if an ad campaign was successful but to alter how people experience reality without their explicit consent, all in an attempt to make more sales.”