One-Way-Mirror Society: Overview of key digital signage capabilities in place today

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The best way to understand the capabilities of digital signage today and how it is being used is to see the digital signage industry’s newly minted Recommended Code of Conduct for Consumer Tracking Methods (See Appendix A for complete document). This document on consumer tracking methods in digital signage was written and agreed upon entirely by industry members, without any participation by consumer representatives. The document reflects the advances in technology in this area and where the possibilities for abuse lay. The opening of the document reads:

“Technological advances have made it effortless and inexpensive to track consumers in stores, through surveillance or other types of camera or recording media. On the one hand, there is huge demand to gather shopper insights in order to profitably market the right products to the investing consumer and provide a hassle-free shopping experience. On the other hand, the ability to record and track a customer’s every move through the store, identify customers facially and demographically, and pinpoint where ad what customers are looking at, picking up, and putting into their shopping carts through Observed Tracking Data (OTD) raises privacy issues and sends shivers down the spine of even the boldest marketer.”[39] (emphasis added)

In the best practices document, a set of digital signage technologies that raise privacy issues are discussed and categorized. It is not just digital signs themselves that are noted, but the entire technical “ecosystem” of digital signage: the tracking systems, cameras, and other surveillance mechanisms that go along with the digital signage network. The systems are those that are in place and in use today. [40]

Digital signage and media expert Laura Davis-Taylor discusses three primary ways that retailers use to track customers:

  • Simple traffic counters, such as laser beams.
  • Video-based recognition systems that count the number of people who have walked by a space, and measure how long they pause in a space (dwell time).
  • Pathway tracking technologies that attach a unique ID number to each customer entering a store and then track that customer. The visit log of that individual can then be used to create a “heat map” or pathway map of their activities in the store.
  • A fourth method has been developed recently, dubbed “automated tracking and reporting.” Thistechnique uses cameras and facial recognition software to capture and determine a customer’s age, ethnicity, and gender. [41]

It is the last two capabilities that raise the most concerns: tracking individual customers can capturing age, gender, and ethnicity. Additionally, video signage technologies are being increasingly tied to identifiable mobile devices and loyalty card programs, which adds to the capabilities to track and identify individual customers.
The Code of Conduct for Consumer Tracking ranks the universe of consumer tracking methods in a hierarchy of low risk to high-risk methods. (OTD stands for Observed Tracking Data.)

Here is the most current version of the hierarchy (January, 2010.)

2.1 – Low Risk OTD Collection Methods

    • Infrared or laser beam motion detectors
    • Sonar and other non-recording, sound-based motion detectors
    • Overhead path tracking systems that are capable of generating on-premise, aggregate “heat
    • maps” of consumer presence, but are not able to track or record individual consumer paths.

2.2 – Medium Risk OTD Collection Methods

    • Overhead camera-based path tracking systems or “gaze tracking” systems that are able to track and/or record individual consumer paths, but do not uniquely or individually identify consumers.
    • Sensor-laden shopping carts that track and/or record individual consumer paths, but are not able to uniquely or individually identify consumers.
    • RFID or other wired or wireless tracking devices knowingly worn or carried by consumer, or used on shopping carts and baskets to track consumer behavior, but are not able to personally or uniquely identify consumers.
    • Any method where information can be used to collect demographic or psychographic information, but cannot be used to individually or uniquely identify consumers.

2.3 High Risk OTD Collection Methods

    • Personally identifiable OTD collection via mobile phone or mobile computing device via wireless (cellular, Bluetooth, etc.) connection.
    • Any method capable of identifying consumers based on past purchases, loyalty card programs, or other behavioral patterns collected by OTD collection methods.
    • Any camera-based OTD system that collects and stores visual data.
    • Any method used to personally or uniquely identify consumers, when combined with loyalty
    • program data, or 3rd party marketing data.

The next sections of this report offer a more detailed discussion of these technologies and examples of the technologies in active use. [42]





[39] Best Practices: Recommended Code of Conduct for Consumer Tracking Methods, POPAI. This document is contained in full in Appendix A of this report.

[40] A good early discussion of digital signage network tracking is: Bill Gerba, Proven Methods for Tracking Your At-retail Media Network, June 3, 2006. < ng_your_at_retail_media_network-277.html >. This article mentions privacy as a consideration in its closing paragraphs and accurately anticipated the privacy issues that were to emerge.

[41] Measurement and Analysis for Digital Signage, A Guide for Digital Signage Today and Retail Customer Experience, p. 5. <>.

[42] For an excellent industry discussion of aspects of privacy in digital signage, see Bill Gerba, Digital Signage Networks Must Guarantee Viewer Privacy, August 1, 2008. < must_guarantee_viewer_privacy-569.html >.



Roadmap: The One-Way-Mirror Society – Privacy Implications of the new Digital Signage Networks: II. Overview of key digital signage capabilities in place today


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