Smartphone Tracking Study Raises Privacy Concerns as Digital Out-of-Home Network Monitors Traffic Patterns
UNITED KINGDOM — Issues related to smartphone tracking have been making headlines, and it’s usually for the wrong reasons. This seems to be the case with London’s Renew Network, a digital out-of-home advertising network that uses street-level recycling receptacles, also known as Pods, to broadcasts real-time news and information across a one mile radius in London’s financial district. As companies look for ways to improve their products and services, they can sometimes stumble upon a hornet’s nest without actually realizing it.
Renew’s problem surfaced this week when the company announced the results of a beta test that it conducted to capture and track smartphone data, also known as MAC address, in an effort to understand how people move around the company’s network. The results of the study captured unique mobile device addresses to provide the company with a concise breakdown of the people’s movement, device type, direction, and the speed at which people traversed through Renew’s test sites in an effort to identify peak foot traffic times. The test captured more than 4,009,676 mobile devices and registered more than 530,000 unique devices over a one week period during the month of June.
Renew was planning to use the smartphone tracking results to attract additional ad revenue to their network. At first glance this sounds like a great idea, after all, advertisers are always looking for more precise media metrics, and digital out-of-home ad networks are also looking for ways to prove out their effectiveness. So what’s wrong with simply testing an idea? Well, it seems that a lot of feathers got ruffled when word spread that the Renew Network was snooping on people movements without informing the public ahead of time about the study. Renew didn’t do itself any favors when they said in their press release that the “consolidated data of our beta testing highlights the significance of the Renew ORB technology as a powerful tool for corporate clients and retailers. It provides an unparalleled insight into the past behavior of each unique device including entry/exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest, and affinity to other devices – and should provide compelling reach database for predictive analytics, such as likely places to eat, drink, personal habits etc.” One could understand how some people could get their panties in a bunch over this. Most metropolitan areas are already saturated with surveillance systems, and this is especially true of London, but at least those efforts are out in the open.
Renew’s privacy issue are not unique, social media sites such as Facebook have been in the news for the same reason. It’s important to recognize that there’s nothing sinister going on here. Most developers are looking to improve their user’s experience, and in the process create a revenue stream by understanding who their end users are and in turn help advertisers to deliver more relevant messages, and from what we can see that’s all that the Renew Network was trying to do as well. This dust up also highlights an issue that’s particular to technology companies, they’re often run by people who are extremely well versed on the technical aspects of their business, but they can sometimes overlook fundamental market issues such as privacy.
Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew Networks just issued a statement to address questions regarding the company’s testing:
“Thank you for your comments and your reactions are entirely understandable. I’m afraid that in the interest of a good headline and story there has been an emphasis on style over substance that makes our technology trial slightly more interesting than it is. To confirm, the initial trials of the Renew Orb technology have ceased. We are no longer conducting the tests and the specific sites installed with the Orb technology have no data capturing hardware currently operational. During early analysis, which is no longer being conducted, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting annonymized and aggregated MAC addresses from the street and sending one report every three minutes concerning total footfall data from our sites. A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could potentially be developed but none of which are workable right now. We no longer continue to count devices and are presently not able to distinguish between unique devices versus repeat devices. Our process is very much like a website where you can tell how many hits a website has had and also evaluate repeat visitors, but cannot see anything personal about any of the visitors on the website. So we were unable to tell, for example, whether we had seen a mobile device or not as we never gathered any personal details,” said Mr. Memari.
“Future developments will, however, not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology. This has always and continues to be Renew’s key concern. We wish to provide a functioning domestic service for the City of London and its inhabitants. We do not wish to detract from the company’s purpose, and always adhere to the ethical and lawful standards of the City. We would never contravene any data protection principles and are unable to obtain or disclose personal data. Simply think of the Phase I testing as a glorified counter on the street. At this stage, we were merely running a pilot with extremely limited, encrypted, anonymous/aggregated data. Come the time we discuss creating the future levels of protection, we can move to an improved service where we can bring better content to people,” added Mr. Memari.
There’s no question that privacy issues will continue to make headlines regardless of the delivery platform. Digital out-of-home operators will need to start thinking about how they adopt new technologies in much the same way as their online and mobile counterparts. The takeaway from all this should be: just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should, or perhaps the best advice for network operators is: tread lightly.
Editors Note 4/28/14: Media Metrica has gone into receivership and the Renew Network is no longer live.
The DOOH Ad Network Locator is designed to help media buyers, planner and strategists identify digital place-based advertising networks by location, venue type, demographics and reach. There are 160 advertising-based networks organized by country. The United States is organized by venue type as it has the broadest range of venue categories, with the greatest number of ad-based networks operating within each category.
Digital Out-of-Home (DOOH) advertising, also known as Digital Place Based (DPB) media, utilizes strategically placed, networked digital signage displays to reach on-the-go consumers while they are outside of their home with highly targeted messages. Digital place-based screens can be found in locations that include transportation hubs such as airports, railway and bus terminals; executive networks in office-building lobbies and elevators. Other venues include shopping malls, gas stations, fast-casual restaurants, fitness centers, hotels and more.