Coming Soon: Smell, Touch, And Dead People

In arguing for the ongoing constitutionality of the commercial/noncommercial distinction in billboard regulation in the wake of City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, I wrote (in 2005) that billboards “can talk and they can listen.” (103 Mich. L. Rev. 1877, 1877). I was referring to the ability of highway billboards to interact with passing motorists by, for instance, eavesdropping on their radio station. No surprise that my three-year-old statement about billboards now seriously undersells them. According to a recent New York Times article:

"[Advertisers] are equipping billboards with tiny cameras that gather details about passers-by — their gender, approximate age and how long they looked at the billboard. These details are transmitted to a central database. . . .

The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon."

Notwithstanding vendor claims that your privacy is not implicated because “everything [they] do is anonymous,” this move is part of a disturbing trend toward building the advantages of Internet advertising (tailored content, tracking, analytics) into a physical environment. It appears we are going to need a Network Advertiser Initiative opt out for outdoor signage — or better yet, an Ad Blocker Plus: Real World Edition.

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