You’re walking down the street, coffee in hand, and glance over at a billboard as you pass. Better check your make-up and hair first, because that billboard might be looking back at you.
Cameras hidden in digital billboards have been used in Europe and China for marketing purposes for years, and are now being tried out in strategic locations throughout the US. Eighth Street in Manhattan features a hidden camera in a streetside billboard for a new A&E series, Andromeda Strain. The camera scans facial structures to determine gender and approximate age of the passerby, records how long they paid attention to the ad, then sends that information to a database.

While this innovation offers advertisers an exciting solution to the age old- struggle of reaching the right person with the right message, is the sacrifice of our privacy worth it? Slightly disturbing when you consider much of the technology video advertising company TruMedia Technologies uses was created originally for surveillance work for the Israeli government.

At this point the camera is only gathering data and not storing any images, but Quividi, the company behind the camera says that capability is in the near future. Their ultimate goal is to quickly process the gender, age and ethnicity of the viewer, then quickly project a digital ad specifically targeted to that viewer.

Great. In a world where we are continually struggling to break down stereotypes and reject labels, are we really heading into a future where you’ll be categorized as you walk down the street, not by people, but by billboards?

Personally, as a 24 year-old female, I’m not looking forward to sparking a series of tampon ads on passing screens as I stroll down the street. Will the modern form of chivalry now be to insist your date walk instead on the side closest to the street, and subject yourself to a stream of ads for razors and sport utility trucks?
They may not be storing data now, but companies like Quividi have said themselves they might be soon, and if they did, they could be forced to share information on court orders. Sounds reminiscent of movies like Minority Report, to me. As if cell phone tracking available to the public wasn’t bad enough!
Maybe I’m being extreme, maybe it’s not so bad, and advertising will just become less impersonal, and more effective. Either way, its worth it to pay attention as steps are made that could potentially affect our privacy. Even if it’s ten years down the road.

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