Billboards are watching you: online tracking methods used offline

On: September 25, 2017
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About Aimee Dirkzwager


Difficulties with measuring the effectiveness of outdoor advertising have always been existent. In the primary days of billboard advertising, one would hire someone to stand nearby the high way and manually count the cars passing by. Although the best guesses about viewership numbers come from manual calculation, it neither guarantees that the persons passing by were really looking at the billboard, or that they were the ones pursued. But what if we could change this…?

In the modern age of advertising, those (Facebook, Google, Amazon etc) who can measure everything have captured lightning in a bottle. The Internet is a place where publishers and media agencies can track people’s clicks for advertising purposes and this has raised the bar on measurement. Tech moguls closely analyze who sees a specific advertisement, when and how. The company Quividi Leader in Attention Analytics implemented VidiReports software in outdoor advertising which is as their brochure claims, “an extraordinary breakthrough in audience measurement”.

A few weeks ago, a commuter paid close attention to a digital billboard at central station Amersfoort, Netherlands. He wasn’t only watching the ad. The billboard was watching back. This commuter spotted the VidiReports software: a hidden camera analyzing the passing public. Age, gender, time-watched and facial expression are depicted. The Dutch media picked this up and the observation led to a national debate. Why didn’t we know we were being watched in public sphere and analyzed for corporate benefits? A week later a statement was published that the cameras were turned off till further notice.

Image 1) VidiReports feeding one of the provided HTML demos via

Within the advertising world, these camera systems are perceived as a welcome answer to the long-lasting problem of how to measure the effectiveness of outdoor advertising, and how to figure out who are seeing them. The camera’s purpose is to provide advertisers data to measure the effectiveness of outdoor ads that are comparable to those they use for digital and mobile ads. Should we be worried that NS, a public organization, is profiting from commuters in such way? Quividi claims that individual data is not being stored, but how do we know that this is true? Information is captured and hackers could gain access to sensitive information either by accessing data or by querying or eavesdropping on the network. Hackers can use seemingly harmless data to derive sensitive information if they know how to correlate multiple sensor inputs, such as location. Although Quividi states that it doesn’t store data of individuals, it is questionable whether the apprehended data is protected properly.

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought,” – Edward Snowden

Image 2) Drawing of Edward Snowden via

There is a huge corporate demand for such data, but what about our privacy? When one is to commute by train and use public transport that individual is likely to be captured by Quividi software. Before we can understand why such billboard camera activity inflicts with matters of privacy, we must try to understand the notion of privacy and the academic debate about it in different fields of study.

Many scholars have written about what the term privacy means and what value it serves. A disreputably ambiguous notion, privacy takes on different meanings in different contexts. The foundation of the privacy concept itself goes back to Ancient Greece. A Greek media scholar notes that Aristotle made a distinction between polis (the public sphere of political activity) and oikos (the private sphere associated with family and domestic life) (Papathanassopoulos, 2015). In one of the first academic articles that discusses privacy in 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis highlighted privacy as the “right to be let alone” (Cohen, 2013). Basic ideals of privacy—of liberty, dignity, and autonomy—do not dissolve in public. The notion of privacy in public is not an oxymoron. These ideals have functioned, until now, by the connected concepts of anonymity (in the real world) and by the thoughts of information protection (online). Habermas (1987) took a sociological approach and examined how life consists of the private world (intimacy and family) where one is most in control of his actions and communications and the public sphere (communicative networks that enables one to take part in culture and the formation of public opinion). A British sociologist who studies the impact of digital revolution claims that the growth of print and then the Internet led to new forms of “mediated publicness” which accepted an intimate form of self-presentation (Thompson, 2000). Television, radio, and telephone turned once private places into more public ones by making them more accessible to the outside world (Meyrowitz, 1986). The public and the private have been reconstructed as spheres of information that are essentially disconnected from physical environments and entwined with changing technologies of communication (Thompson, 2011). From a legal approach, Cohen discusses how traditional foundations of information protection have been closely related concepts of notification and consent. Individuals must be, at the very least, notified about the ways in which their personal information is collected and the purposes for which it is used, and individuals should ideally consent (agree) to this usage. Notification and consent is missing when collecting data from a crowded train station for corporate interest. When you talk about privacy you can expect heated discussions. For some reason privacy has a bad reputation or image problem. The recent additions of social media, mobile platforms, cloud computing, data mining, and predictive analytics intimidate placing privacy in long-lasting conflict to the progress of knowledge / innovation.

Companies might not only use gathered information about consumers in its own custom-made communications but also share that information with third parties (Aguirre, 2016). Consumers often have little control over which firms collect their information and with whom they share it (Angwin, 2010). Businesses defend such activities on the grounds that information provided to third parties are anonymous, yet cybersecurity disasters [such as WannaCry and WikiLeaks] suggest that seemingly harmless, anonymous data, when combined with other information, can paint a fairly accurate picture of any individual’s identity (Solove, 2004). Somebody stole a billion Yahoo accounts without being identified. There has been an enormous expansion in the overall number of cameras in the public sphere, which has resulted in a correlating growth of public images available for government and corporations to track, identify, and locate individuals as they move around. Privacy is not just something we like. It is something that is essential for us. It helps us develop who we are, form an identity and decide what type of civilization we want to live in. Whether we enjoy it or not continuous data gathering about everything we do -like the kind conducted by Facebook and Quividi and an increasing number of other companies – forms and manufactures our actions. We act different from who we are when monitored in comparison to when we are enjoying some privacy. Our social and cultural life outside and our quiet, alone time are both essential parts of how we express ourselves (Shaw 2017).  If how we do that turns out to be topic to always-on monitoring it can, even unconsciously, change our actions and self-perception. Currently many corporations track and package personal data and behavioral information and sell it to advertisers: what can be termed “surveillance capitalism” (Shaw 2017). Privacy involves the right to choose what you want to share, how you want to live, and what you decide to show to the threats of transparency. In surveillance capitalism, those rights are removed from us without knowing, or consent, and used for corporate interest (Shaw 2017). In eluding decision rights, we lose autonomy, as well as privacy and self-government. Such rights don’t just evaporate. We lose them to someone else. Facebook is a company that collects ‘decision rights’ that once belonged to us. We didn’t vote for them, we didn’t elect them, we didn’t authorize this relocation of rights and power.

Although the activities of tech companies such as Facebook and Quividi are legal, there is something distressing about them. Privacy must have a deeper purpose than the one ascribed to it by those who handle it as an exchange to be traded for innovation, which in many contexts seems to essentially mean corporate interests. We are creating an identity that lacks privacy and is subject to monitoring.  We need to choose if we actually want to live in a society that handles every decision as a data point to be analyzed and traded for. The more we allow continuous tracking, the more challenging it becomes to alter the way that technologies are used to interfere on our lives. I would suggest that – as there is yet no ad blocker or Do Not Track application in our offline world – it would be best that the only cameras in our public domain are surveillance cameras and not those that track to collect and sell valuable behavioral information for corporate interest.



Aguirre, E., Roggeveen, AL., Grewal, D., Wetzels, M. (2016), “The personalization-privacy paradox: implications for new media”, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 33 Issue: 2, pp.98-110,

Angwin, J. (2010), “The web’s new gold mine: your secrets”, Wall Street Journal, 30 July, available at: Accessed on September 25, 2017

Cohen, J.E. (2013), What privacy is for, Harvard Law Review (Vol. 126.). No.7, pp. 1904-1933

Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of communicative action (Vol.2.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Meyrowitz, J. (1986). No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

NRC, Plotseling heeft de reclamezuil ogen gekregen, 5 september 2017, p. E5 via Accessed on September 25, 2017

Papathanassopoulos, S. (2015), “Privacy 2.0”, Social Media + Society, Vol. 1 No. 1.

Quividi, product sheet VidiReports via Accessed on September 25, 2017

Shaw, J. (2017), The Watchers. Assaults on privacy in America, Harvard Magazine via Accessed on September 25, 2017

Solove, D.J. (2004), The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, New York University Press, New York, NY.

Snowden, E. (2013), Edward Snowden’s Christmas Message 2013, YouTube via Accessed on September 25, 2017

Thompson, J.B. (2000). Political scandal: Power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Thompson, J.B. (2011). Shifting boundaries of public and private life. Theory, Culture & Society, 28, 49-70

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