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See That Billboard? It May See You, Too (nytimes.com)
109 points by etruong42 on Feb 29, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

"has partnered with several companies, including AT&T, to track people’s travel patterns and behaviors through their mobile phones."

Basically what I make of this is that cell phone companies (for sure AT&T) have already agreed to sell Clear Channel your location data. Do they already disseminate this information out to anyone who is willing to pay for it or is this new?

Edit - I found they do and below are there are opt out links for different cell providers.


It's not new, and all the major wireless providers are in on it. To read more from the horse's mouth, check out [1] and [2] (Verizon). Not to mention many apps you have installed also sell your data - behavior, location, etc - to mobile ad networks. [3]




As DJB said about his new job at Verizon, "I am the man in the middle!"


Not useful in most cases but setting your phone to airplane mode helps too for those who don't have opt-out links and aren't sure of this being in their carrier.

I don't see how disabling close to all the functionality of your phone is a solution. Sure, they can't track me, but nobody can call me either.

It's not a solution, but there you go.

Large wealthy entities are going to act like assholes, and guess what we learned in kindergarten. All it takes is one fucking asshole to ruin a good thing that used work for everyone.

Sorry, but running around with a uniquely identifiable radio badge is now officially being used against you. It's not just about law enforcement using this system against criminals anymore. It's about anyone with enough money, exploiting every naive sucker minding their own business.

Welcome to the future.

It will soon become bad enough with law enforcement alone - with automated license plate readers increasingly being used.

Say you have a speeding ticket on your record: (X1, Y1) coordinates at time A (X2, Y2) coordinates at time B

Where X1, X2, Y1, Y2, are all accessible via your cellular data. With an accurate enough signal, your speed can be accurately measured, given A & B. All of this is becoming a reality as faster "LTE" (and soon, 5G) speeds are just enabling the transmission of your data faster to hands you weren't aware of.

The automation of speeding tickets is just waiting for a developer to sell to overstaffed PDs strapped for cash. Sending in a speeding ticket in the mail as if one ran through a red light with a traffic camera. As adoption increases, they won't even need a previous offense on your record.

What's the cost-benefit ratio? Nothing exists completely altruistically. For me, Google apps (Gmail etc.) provide enough benefit for the cost (of being advertised to).

As much as selling my location is infuriating, I'm not likely to give up my pocket computer. The benefit to my life - instant maps and directions, communications, and access to the wealth of the world's information at my fingertips is enough of a benefit - for me, that is.

I hate that there has to be a cost that feels vicious, but it is what it is right now. I do hope the privacy pendulum swings back a bit.

"I hate that there has to be a cost..."

Is there an assumption hidden in this statement? That the cost of map data _must_ be sending personal information to Google? Why can't the cost be a dollar value? What if it was? How much do you estimate it would be? Would you pay it?

Could there be a company that could create maps and directions of the same or better quality than the enormous, well-known one you mentioned? And could that company charge actual currency for licensing the data? In fact I believe there was such a company, until Google acquired them and their work became "Maps".

I also remember in the earlier days of the www getting directions without sending personal information to Google, via sites like MapQuest. I also remember map software that did not require internet connectivity.

"As much as [what Google chooses to do] is infuriating, I'm not likely to give up my pocket computer..."

Is there another hidden assumption in this statement? That it would be _impossible_ to build a pocket computer that can serve maps and directions from a local data store, without an internet connection?

"...but it is what it is right now."

Right now, and forever more. Because there is only one "proper" way to do things, and that's how they're being done now. Those are safe assumptions, yes?

> Why can't the cost be a dollar value? What if it was? How much do you estimate it would be? Would you pay it?

I live out this sentiment in my donations to Wikimedia whenever they start bugging us for donations.

I do have a tangible "value added" from going to their site and using Wikis, and thus I'm more than happy to shell out some sheckels for what they offer.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are simply not aware of the implications of these "free" services they use (picture me doing the double quote hand gesture when I say "free" here). I don't want to call them ignorant, as many have a general understanding that they are being data mined, but they are unaware of the _implications_ of such, compared to your average HN reader who often has been around big data, or handled it themselves. (Read: "Nothing to hide" argument)

> Right now, and forever more. Because there is only one "proper" way to do things, and that's how they're being done now. Those are safe assumptions, yes?

THe bright side is that they are safe assumptions until people start waking up and learning of ways to minimize (not completely remove) their "data footprint" - NoScript, Ghostery, uBlock, Disconnect, etc. etc.

Businesses will have to react, whether that's getting into the trenches (ie: FuckAdBlock.js, force javascript), or considering a different monetization approach.

And perhaps there is a niche market for a Non-Internet-Required "MapQuest" style iOS/Android App, waiting to be struck ;).

Considering that this commercial aspect represents the potential for much larger, and perhaps less scrupulous operators (you know, private military, or who even fucking cares anymore, it's just too easy for it to happen to argue) ...to do the exact same thing at any time...

And sell the data to a single person who merely wants it, or maybe a motivated group of people who have an incentive, and can pay...

Or maybe someone looking to buy an election and maybe even sell an entire war... Which has never happened before, I'm sure. News Corp. Enron. Doesn't matter.

Who ever it was the last time, the next time, the names will be different, but we'll be blind-sided again, all the same. And how could this have possibly happened? Where did we go wrong?

But safety in numbers, relying on my own safety as one in a city of millions, means my data is surely worthless, right?

Who would care about me? And then everyone else says that too. And then you have the whole city that way.

Some people don't get called often, and driving and talking on the phone isn't an option everyone enjoys, so airplane mode fits the bill for some as I've read in other discussions on HN by others.

Thank you for this! Very helpful. It worked great for AT&T. However, for Verizon, I couldn't find the settings they were talking about. I'm not sure if it's because I'm not a Verizon mobile customer (only Internet), or if they've changed it in the meantime.

I work peripherally in this industry, so I can provide more context to the data used here; based on the press release[i], Clear Channel is using three different types of data for this:

1) AT&T cell tower data. All major US carriers collect aggregate movement data, and some have productized it (check out Grandata and Streetlight Data if you're interested). They're likely providing something like a persons count by daypart to Clear Channel at some geography, likely census block group. AT&T likely provides course demographics as well (either by purchasing them from a data broker like Experian or Epsilon) or by looking up the aggregate demo characteristics reported by the US Census for the block group of the subscribers household. As an aside, current gen (4G) cell tower data isn't very precise - maybe 100m accuracy or worse.

2) Placed opt in GPS panel data. There are many market research companies that pay consumer run location tracking apps (mFour and Instantly are other examples). Placed is probably the biggest (~1mm panelists).

3) PlaceIQ mobile ad server GPS data. PlaceIQ, xAd, Factual, Verve, Ninth Decimal...all of these companies read the lat / long coordinates provided by mobile SSPs in mobile RTB bid stream to create location segment profiles associated with your phone's Ad ID. The data isn't very accurate (mobile ad fraud is a problem...an app change the GPS coord from rural Kansas to downtown Manhattan to juice their CPM in an auction; also, most of the GPS used for buying mobile inventory is via "LastKnownLocation" apis which are notoriously inaccurate). These guys generally use their data to group your Ad ID into a segment (if they see you at a Wendy's, they'll sell your Ad ID to mobile RTB bidders as a "Frequent Wendy's eater"). Clear Channel is probably using this to see if exposure to a billboard caused you to make a purchase that they can attribute to your Ad ID (say via the advertisers CRM database), or to augment the demo data from AT&T with demo segments they can buy from mobile data exchanges.

[i]: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160229005959/en/Clea...

> There are many market research companies that pay consumer run location tracking apps

Why do they pay consumers when so many apps collect that data for free?

A couple of reasons - data quality and usage restrictions are the top. Here's an example - say I'm Big Box Retailer & Co and I want to measure how many people who visit my store also visited my competitor, Small Box Retailer Inc. Where can I go to buy that data?

-Facebook or Google don't sell their raw user data. They can tell me how effective the ads I placed on their sites were at driving visits or sales by matching my customer's email & phone numbers to their users (see [1] and [2]), but they won't give me data on my competitor, and the data will always be aggregated. So on to the next idea..

-Mobile ad server data aggregators might sell me their raw data, but the quality isn't great. Sure, they track 100m+ devices...but how many times do they see each of those devices a day? For most devices it's 10 times or less, so you're going to have a big problem with false negatives (people who visited Big Box Retailer and Small Box Retailer, but due to the sparsity of the data I miss one of those visits). On to the next...

-Foursquare is newly in the data business, but despite having a big audience (50m MAU), only ~1.3m users have opted in for continuous measurement ([3]). On top of that, Foursquare's audience is pretty skewed - if Big Box Retailer's customers are older, I'm going to have trouble finding them in Foursquare's data set, which means the effective size of their 1.3m 'panel' is really something like 200k-500k. On top of that, I can't survey them to verify they actually visited Small Box Retailer instead of the McDonalds next store, since the GPS data Foursquare pulls is LastKnown instead of exact.

-...so if the only data I can buy on the open market is skewed, not really that big (not to mention collected under potentially dubious privacy policies), whats my alternative? Thats the need these panels are filling.

As an aside, if you're curious what apps on your phone are collecting your location data, you can use a self-hosted MITM server w/ SSL decryption to sniff your own traffic. Here's own for Android: https://code.google.com/archive/p/sandrop/

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/google-touts-mobile-ad-technolog... [2] http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/facebook-gives-retaile... [3] http://techcrunch.com/2016/02/22/attribution-by-foursquare/

In addition to this people do things to their phones that make data useless quite often. They turn off their gps, root the phone and change the clock so they can cheat at games, use location spoofing apps so they can pretend to be somewhere else on tinder. Then on top of that it can be hard to tell where people are even with gps on because being in a building screws it up. There are several solutions to that problem but nothing is perfect.

Somewhat related, but is there such a thing as "peak advertising"? Like, the point at which there is so much advertising that there is no more space to advertise on? Or we become so inundated by it that it ceases to have any affect on us at all?

> so much advertising that there is no more space to advertise on

Facebook didn't buy Oculus because they wanted to take fruit ninja to the next level...

They bought Oculus to continue to diversify their product offerings. Facebook core will likely decline, but they'll still have Instagram, Whatsapp, Oculus, etc. When you have a one trick pony, and the market hands you tens of billions of dollars in exchange for a slice of your company, you buy other horses.

I'm looking for an app that collects all the ads that I see, and reminds me to not buy any of the advertised stuff.

In Minority Report, when the hologram shouts Johns name to attract his attention as he passes by... Is that going to be peak advertising, or could it get worse than this?

Digital is the new frontier, and the space is (virtually) infinite. I think the peak will be when advertisers compete against each other for your time, not your money. A person only has so much time.

We are at that point today, see the blogging around the "attention economy." Money is still the end game, luckily there is plenty of innovation happening around new ways to get you to spend more money without needing to apply any of your attention or wasting precious time.

I worked on an outdoor advertising system with tracking cameras that watched pedestrians as they passed, changing the billboard when various demographics were identified in front of the display. This was back in the 2009-2010 time frame. I was just consulting, and am pretty sure this company was purchased by someone like Clear Channel soon after. I think journalists are late to this one...

How did the camera identify the demographics? BTW this isn't using cameras, it's using location tracking from the mobile phone companies.

Not the parent poster, but I also worked in the tech space of outdoor advertising.

The camera based systems I saw used facial detection. The vendors were very keen to refer to "detection" not "recognition" since they (supposedly) only looked at faces and analysed them for demographic information, they didn't track you as an individual. (I'm sure they would have eventually - there's too much money at stake to not track someone's movements and show them relevant ads)

There's lots of vendors of facial detection software than claim to be able to detect:

- age

- gender

- ethnicity

- mood (though that one's a bit suspect)

- where your attention is focused

Most of the software does a decent enough job of most of those.

Some vendors would use the camera to track how many people watched the ad, their age/gender breakdown, how long it held their attention, etc. In those cases it was just about providing "performance" reporting to the advertiser. Often they would have minimum audience guarantees, and would keep running the ad until it hit its levels.

Others tried to target specific ads to specific demographics. They'd have a bunch of ads loaded, and would pick which one to show based on the demographics of current audience.

Can you post of a picture of one of these adverts with one of these cameras?

I'm wondering what's stopping people from just covering up the camera with tape or something.

Edit: Never mind. I found one: http://static01.nyt.com/images/2008/05/31/business/31billboa...

Hi, Do you know the software and algorithm that was used for the tracking? Cause this could be expanded to many related fields. Cheers, Thomas

So you block ads on your phone and next thing you know they're tracking you outdoors. Geez. We need some regulation pretty soon otherwise this whole situation will get out of hand. What if someone hacks into that billboard and routes the data elsewhere?

Next I expect they will tracking license plates and spending enormous amounts of money correlating those plates to actual people.

Or from the auto insurance companies who offer per miles rates if you install their trackers, or the States implementing mileage based gas tax tracking gizmos. What could go wrong?

Or they could pay insurance companies to give them these correlations.

Or even the police, who last I read do sell their plate data gathered from their car cameras.

But how can you ever "regulate" people seeing what happens outdoors, in public? At best, you'll force honest companies not to do it, and dishonest ones to pretend they don't.

I know that this argument applies to many things, but this one in particular seems utterly un-regulatable to me.

Companies can't be completely invisible -- they have customers and employees, they file legal and tax disclosures...

You can ban billboards, as some forward thinking cities have done.

What I worry about with all of this is the massive loss in productivity. As far as I'm concerned, there is a very clear externality here.

If I walk through a city center and I'm bombarded with unavoidable billboards, it's just not good for my brain. I don't want it, it's pollution, poison. I would love a real-life ad blocker for public transport, for example.

So what happens next? When do cities, local governments (London boroughs, say) start to care? Do they ever start to care that commutes, everyday lives of citizens are being destroyed (is there a clear enough causal link)?

Or do we have to wait until people like me start moving out of the city because they don't want to see bollocks flashing lights everywhere, they don't want to walk through a Minority Report like scene of pervasive unavoidable attention grabbers?

There is one main counterexample that I know of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cidade_Limpa

I think you're being a bit melodramatic. Outdoor advertising is not intrusive or annoying at all when compared to other forms of advertising. It's not like I'm trying to watch a video or read a news article on the side of a bus, on a billboard or on top of a taxi.

Additionally, government transit organizations make money off of the advertising sold on their vehicles and property which can in turn be used to re-invest in infrastructure to benefit the average user. Things like digital signage and free Wi-Fi are sponsored by the advertisements and improve the various transit systems they are implemented in.

'When compared to other forms of advertising' is a cop out in my view.

Those other forms are generally avoidable with either zero cost, or a (debatable) net gain.

For example, one can simply choose to not watch broadcast TV, or read newspapers, preferring instead ad-free sources (which are generally better in my experience anyway).

I can't opt out of outdoor advertising without leaving employment opportunities behind or moving away from family and friends.

So that makes the baseline zero against something.

We have Piccadilly Circus/Times Square style moving LED billboards popping up in more and more places now with inane products on them. I don't want to look at pointless consumerist nonsense all day, I want to see life, not capitalism. If you think that's easy to just 'block' I suspect you're quite different to me.

Taking the LU as an example: there are ads above and in front of your head at all times, at stations (every minute) there are ads on the walls (which sometimes move), the escalators have moving LCD screens with advertising on them. Then you get outside and there's probably an advert in front of your face (because the station is a heavily trafficked area).

TV is no comparison! That's 10 minutes completely ad-free with a break that you can stand up and walk away from.

"But, he added, the company was using the same data that mobile advertisers have been using for years, and showing certain ads to a specific group of consumers was not a new idea."

No, that's a lie. GPS data is not available by default and can be controlled by the user. It's certainly not something that has been available for years to advertisers. It sounds like despite any permissions you may refuse in your OS/apps that AT&T will sell your data regardless (unless you opt out). Also, I know it's the NYT, but there's no such thing as anonymizing data. This has been shown over and over again that pretty much any data can be de-anonymized rather easily.

The attribution data story is really weird here.

So outdoor advertisers can potentially pixel customers who see an "impression" like they do for online ads and track conversion behavior if they ultimately walk into a store?

The article doesn't speak much to this, but what opt-in permission would a user give to actually allow their location to constantly be relayed to advertisers to make this possible? Would Target need to hide this in their T&C of their app and then match it against the billboard's data on an advertiser-by-advertiser basis...?

> So outdoor advertisers can potentially pixel customers who see an "impression" like they do for online ads and track conversion behavior if they ultimately walk into a store?

Yes, this is possible today.

The bad thing is that you're not aware that you're followed, and they don't even bother to ask your permission. At the scale of a shopping center it may be OK, but in your daily life it's frightening. ClearChannel has the power to know you better than your best friend.

>ClearChannel has the power to know you better than your best friend.

That would be true if your best friend didn't know your name, address, email, date of birth, and phone number. You see, AT&T, among others, will scrub Personally Identifiable Information("PII") from the data before sharing the data.

That would be OK if it weren't for numerous papers showing that it's essentially impossible to scrub PII and that the data can almost always be linked back to an actual person, which is exactly what all the companies involved in this market want todo.


The point it that by monitoring your location I can derive what is your schedule, where you work, where you do your shopping, the pharmacie you are going to, I can know what kind of food you like by looking what kind of restaurant you go, I can know that after work you are regularly going to an hotel for 2 hours, I know where you live, where you kids are going to school, when and where you take your vacation. By looking who's around you I can know who are your friends and how close you are. With all that information, I don't care about your name, I can put you in a category, classify you better that anyone else. If every billboard is equipped with such thing that can be a problem for privacy.

It only shows you what you give it. The only thing Amazon sends me offers about are computer peripherals because that's all I've bought through them. And Facebook only shows me travel ads because I only post details about my vacations on there. And Google only shows me ads for web hosting because most of my email is about website development.

None of these services know that I'm into hobby bonsai because I've never given them that information. So if don't want to be followed and frightened by them, then limit how you use them.

I don't believe this 100% true, unless you use an effective ad blocker. Data Management Platforms [0] (such as Krux, Bluekai, etc.) exist to keep track of the different sites you visit so that they can place you into various audience segments. It's unlikely they have a "bonsai" segment but you probably fall into a "gardener" segment, as the sites you visit to read about bonsai trees are most likely classified as a gardening website. Any site can signup with a DMP and offer advertisers the ability to target specific users (i.e. gardeners).

Advertisers are always looking for better ways to target a specific audience, publishers are looking for ways to charge higher CPMs, and DMPs are helping both achieve their goal while tracking you across numerous sites on the internet.

[0] http://digiday.com/platforms/what-is-a-dmp-data-management-p...

Isn't it a bit naive to assume that companies don't share and aggregate data? Which internet search provider knows you're into hobby bonsai? You're 100% sure that data will never be shared?

If they see you walking into a bonsai store via billboard camera or track you walking in there via your ATT iPhone I never really "opted in" to giving them that information.

I've heard from german address/data brokers (Schober) that they send out targeted mailings via email and then location pinpoint high value targets for product/ad category X - then they visit these locations in persona and take pictures of their houses and cars to add more data to the profiles.

What a sick world this has become.

The UK Information Commissioner is keeping an eye on this kind of stuff.


Looks like you can opt-out here: http://att.com/cmpchoice

"AT&T provides valuable insights to businesses without compromising consumer privacy. AT&T Data Patterns does not share individual data – only counts. For instance, a report might tell what percentage of passersby is males aged 20-30. Consumers are always able to opt-out of having their anonymous, aggregated information used at att.com/cmpchoice."

They have tried this on Shopping malls and it was a disaster, people got really pissed when this was found out.

I think it's inevitable but it's not nice to know it's happening.

The thing is that location 'signatures' can be created from many types of sensors, as long as they're able to record an environmental factor that is discriminable on a position. It's not important that the signature is very accurate in itself, only that enough independent signatures can be combined together to make one accurate estimate.

That reminds me of this device [1] in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telescreen

You (most likely) wear one right in your pocket. Telescreens are so '84.

What an awesome and innovative project. I wish there were more techniques like this.

In Soviet Russia...

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