Sen. Schumer said this week that new billboards could present a threat to privacy. Photo Courtesy of Queens Crap
By Michael V. Cusenza
A New York senator this week warned the public about new “spying billboards” that can scan and obtain mobile phone data of nearby pedestrians and drivers, and called on federal authorities to investigate any possible threat to privacy.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has penned a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, asking the agency to scrutinize the signs that he said have the ability to track a person’s every move using the location data on their mobile device.
Schumer pointed out that companies often use the data as a way to boost their consumer-information base that can be used to market goods and services to these consumers, or as statistics to sell to other companies. New York’s senior senator said that the collection of such info may violate the privacy of Americans and therefore constitute “a deceptive trade practice” because most consumers are unaware that they are being tracked.
To combat any possible invasion of privacy, Schumer said he’s urging the FTC to require that billboard companies, like Clear Channel Outdoor, offer an opt-out preference for consumers who do not want to be monitored or tracked.
“A person’s cell phone should not become a James Bond-like personal tracking device for a corporation to gather information about consumers without their consent,” Schumer said. “No one wants to be followed or tracked throughout their day, electronically or otherwise, so these new billboards not only raise eyebrows, but they raise some serious questions about privacy. New Yorkers and tourists in Times Square could be giving up a treasure trove of personal information without even knowing it. With tens of thousands of these new, spying billboards popping up in cities across the country, including right here in New York City, the feds should step in and investigate. Moreover, companies should be required to offer an opt-out option for consumers who feel this violates their privacy.”
According to Schumer, Clear Channel Outdoor Americas recently partnered with several companies to create RADAR, an initiative to track an individual’s travel patterns and behavior through the location data on their mobile device. Clear Channel Outdoor has tens of thousands of mobile and digital billboards across the country, including many in the five boroughs. The company plans to provide advertisers with data on individuals who pass by the billboards – some of which are equipped with small cameras that collect information.
RADAR has already begun in New York and Los Angeles, and Clear Channel has indicated that it plans to target other cities across the country this year. Schumer explained that by using the data and analytics, Clear Channel can amass a collection of information, such as the average age and gender, about individuals who view a particular billboard, in a certain place, at any given time.
According to its website, CCO says that “using anonymous aggregated data from consumer cellular and mobile devices, RADAR measures consumers’ real world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day.”
“In light of the privacy concerns that exist with these ‘spying billboards,’ I ask that the Federal Trade Commission investigate, to ensure that Clear Channel Outdoor is acting transparently in this initiative, and consider if consumers should be given the opportunity to opt-out of the sale of their data,” Schumer wrote to Ramirez.
An FTC spokesman told The Forum that the agency “takes all correspondence seriously, whatever the source, but doesn’t comment.”