Billboards can track your location, and privacy advocates don't like it

Clear Channel Outdoor launches a new geolocation tracking service as a way to deliver targeted ads

The next time you see a billboard on the side of the road, it may also be scanning you.

A geolocation-tracking feature on billboards owned by Clear Channel Outdoor gives the company new ways to target advertising and measure its effectiveness. The service has caught the eye of privacy advocates, who worry that the so-called Radar tracker will be able to collect massive amounts of information from smartphones in cars driving past.

Radar will collect mobile data from three Clear Channel partners, including AT&T. "When you pull all of that together, you have lots of granular information" about a person, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of digital privacy group the Center for Digital Democracy. "There are serious privacy issues here."

But Clear Channel Outdoor receives aggregated and anonymous data from its partners, not personal information, said Jason King, vice president of corporate communications at the company. The company launched the service in 11 markets earlier this week.

"The billboards do not have eyes, nor do they have any technology or cameras to see you," he said by email. "There is absolutely no exchange of consumer personal information among Clear Channel Outdoor, its advertisers or the third party data providers. The consumer data lives with the data providers."

But the company could use aggregated data to build detailed profiles of individual smartphone users, Chester said.

Using the data from its partners, the billboard company can build a "real complex picture of an individual," Chester said. The service is one part of "an increasingly personal commercial surveillance system that tracks you on the street."

Clear Channel Outdoor, a subsidiary of media giant iHeartRadio, owns billboards in more than 35 U.S. markets, including New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. 

The company's launch of Radar caught the attention of U.S. Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who's raised questions about the privacy implications of geolocation tracking.

Franken is concerned about "the extent to which Clear Channel may be collecting Americans’ personal information ... and sharing that information without people’s knowledge or consent," he wrote in a letter to the company. "I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy."

In his letter, Franken asked the company to answer several questions, including whether the company has a privacy policy for the Radar service and when the collected data is anonymized.

Franken wants to ensure that corporations don't abuse the "modern reality" of inescapable out-of-home advertising, he added.

Privacy concerns are unfounded, King said. "Only the data providers, who have direct relationships with their own consumers, have access to a customer’s personal information," he added.

Before providing the data to Clear Channel, the data providers categorize their consumers into anonymous groups such as soccer moms or NBA fans, and advertisers want to target these aggregated groups of anonymous consumers, King said.

With at least one of the company's partners, smartphone owners opt into location mapping, and in other cases, customers have the ability to opt out, King said.

Clear Channel has no ability to determine personal information such as the age and gender of people who see its billboards, King added. "The data providers can inform us by sharing, for example, that I-95 in Florida has a high percentage of young families traveling to Disney World," he said. "And some of these travel paths may run contrary to where an advertiser might think these groups congregate or pass."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?