Yahoo has filed a patent for a type of smart billboard that would collect people's information and use it to deliver targeted ad content in real-time.
The billboards wouldn't rely on "personalization," or an individualized approach to advertising found mostly online. Instead they would obey the notion of "groupization" to collect information about a target audience, develop a profile, select "relevant" ad content, and display it to them in real time.
Yahoo provides an example of one such billboard in its patent application, which it filed on 6 October 2016:
"According to one example, a digital billboard adjacent a busy freeway might be instrumented with or located near traffic sensors that detect information about the context of the vehicles approaching the billboard, e.g., the number and average speed of the vehicles. Such information might be used in conjunction with information about the time of day and/or the day of the week (e.g., Monday morning rush hour) to select advertisements for display that would appeal to an expected demographic and to display the advertisements for durations that are commensurate with the level of traffic congestion."
To achieve that functionality, the billboards would use a variety of sensor systems, including cameras and proximity technology, to capture real-time audio, video and even biometric information about potential target audiences.
But the tech company doesn't just want to know about a passing vehicle. It also wants to know who the occupants are inside of it.
That's why Yahoo is prepared to cooperate with cell towers and telecommunications companies to learn as much as possible about each vehicle's occupants. As it goes on to explain in the application:
"Various types of data (e.g., cell tower data, mobile app location data, image data, etc.) can be used to identify specific individuals in an audience in position to view advertising content. Similarly, vehicle navigation/tracking data from vehicles equipped with such systems could be used to identify specific vehicles and/or vehicle owners. Demographic data (e.g., as obtained from a marketing or user database) for the audience can thus be determined for the purpose of, for example, determining whether and/or the degree to which the demographic profile of the audience corresponds to a target demographic."
Yahoo sounds excited about its proposal. But this conception of a smart billboard should give everyone (and hopefully the patent office) pause for two reasons.
First, Yahoo would collect people's information and use that data to select relevant advertising content. Great. What happens then? Where does the data go? Does the company delete the data? Do advertising companies, who can bid to place content on the billboards, have access to that content?
The company doesn't say anything about security in its application. That should concern everyone after the world learned about Yahoo's email-scanning program, which could invoke a legal challenge to Privacy Shield and which could have allowed an attacker to have basically read every Yahoo user's emails.
Second, Yahoo's smart billboards wouldn't give people much of an option to opt-out. They couldn't use an ad-blocker to disable the advertising content because, well, how do you block a billboard?
It sounds like everyone would be subject to Yahoo's data collection program and that they would have no way to protect themselves.
The company's smart billboard application is still pending. If it's approved, let's hope Yahoo takes time to think about the privacy implications of its plan and protect users and their data.