Tim Youngman: Facial Recognition Advertising – a privacy step too far?

Tim Youngman

Tim Youngman - Credit: Archant

A couple of columns ago I wrote about temperature controlled ad boards that displayed advertisements depending on what the ambient temperature is. That is a clever use of technology but what happens when the lines between technology, advertising and privacy are blurred?

Most people are now all too familiar with online behavioural advertising where you visit a site and miraculously ads from that site seem to follow you around the web.

It is of course impossible to drop a little piece of computer code onto a human being to get the same effect. However now thanks to Sir Alan and one of his subsidiary companies, Amscreen, we are getting close to that.

Amscreen has 5,000 digital advertising boards across Europe and they are now fitting facial recognition cameras to billboards. This will show whether the people looking at the billboard are male or female and potentially even approximate age allowing the boards to deliver more targeted advertising.

It does not stop there. Students at the European Institute of Technology are currently exploring the ability to link Facebook accounts to the computer chips in store loyalty cards. These would then link to in-store ad boards that would flash up ads based on a person’s Facebook likes.


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At this point you then get into the big question of privacy. In America the upscale retailer Nordstrom ran a trial of a system that tracked individuals’ movements through their smart phones’ in-store Wi-Fi connections. Sensors within the store collected information from customer smartphones as they attempt to connect to Wi-Fi service. The sensors monitored which departments were visited and how much time was spent in them. When this was released in the media the consumer backlash about privacy quickly ended the trial.

The reality is as technology gets smarter, so will advertising and its ability to engage but potentially also annoy and invade. A marketer’s dream, but how much consumers will be prepared to put up with remains to be seen.

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Tim Youngman is Director of Marketing for Archant

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