Yahoo has a creepy plan for advertising billboards to spy on you

Groupization = a privacy nightmare?

David bisson
David Bisson

Yahoo billboard

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 diagram 1

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.

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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 patent diagram

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.

David Bisson is an infosec news junkie and security journalist. He works as Contributing Editor for Graham Cluley Security News and Associate Editor for Tripwire's "The State of Security" blog.

9 comments on “Yahoo has a creepy plan for advertising billboards to spy on you”

  1. Simon

    What a coincidence, Verizon is about to buy 'em out and now all this talk of collecting telemetry from users, with the assistance of cell towers…

    I wouldn't trust either company with my rubbish.

  2. Tom Smith

    What, exactly, is the Patent Office supposed to be concerned about? What is the patent ability issue here?

    1. Elliot Alderson · in reply to Tom Smith

      They Live!
      Conform. Obey. Consume. Watch TV. Stay Asleep. Repopulate. Submit.

      1. BreakTheMachine · in reply to Elliot Alderson

        You do understand that the only function of the patent office is to make sure patents are legal and shit right? If you are going to make the claim that Tom is some sort of mindless sheep you could at least do yourself a favor and stop being one and actually learn and think for yourself instead of hammering on about things you definitely don't understand and are obviously just spewing shit others have fed you before.

  3. John

    Scary stuff, indeed. Let's throw in some Oceania propaganda onto the billboard too.

    If only it were for f00king up the system up, I'd be inclined to fetch myself a second mobile number, then to only be visiting some stuipid porn sites with it without using it otherwise, and then shut off my regular phone while travelling. Let's see what happens next, ha! :o)

    1. Matthew Parkes · in reply to John

      To broaden this idea, yes for those individuals who have a taste for adult content or maybe individuals like those caught in the Ashley Madison breach I am sure would be extremely embarrassed and may have a lot of explaining to do to their partners and what of kids, not only the individuals kids but also children in other vehicles exposed to such content, are yahoo going to filter out porn, gambling & unhealthy food adverts or at certain times of day should such content be found to be the type of ads that are identified as appropriate for that passing motorist?

  4. Spryte

    There is nothing new here…
    Special receivers (more limited) have been used in the Toronto are (and, I suppose, other areas) to monitor what radio station you are listening to while on the road. Also possibly even what type of radio is in your car and maybe even more…
    There was an item on the Discovery Channel on it many years back. I was just waiting for it get more invasive.

    Perhaps it is time to get that 30 year old Pick-Up truck. No radio, no GPS, no monitors of any kind….

  5. Brooke

    Why are people freaking out about Yahoo doing this? I am not in favor, but for the last year there's been a streak of kiosks installed around NYC that are just there to spy. It's not targetting advertising with the possibility of collecting and using that info, the whole purpose is that. If you haven't seen it, hit up and search for kiosk, there are quite a few articles about it.

  6. Jay

    Remember when it used to be considered creepy and rude to stalk, surveil, or eavesdrop on even one person, let alone thousands?

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