The billboard area on Piccadilly Circus, one of London’s most recognisable landmarks, has been upgraded this week. Instead of six separate screens, the area is now home to a single billboard.
The new advertising space has an area of more than 790 square metres and each of the pixels are spaced only 8mm from each other, giving spectacular image quality.
However, there are a few more unsettling ‘improvements’. The billboard will feature a host of cameras and sensors that respond to environmental cues and deliver behaviourally tailored ads. It can also react to changes in weather and temperature. You could see umbrella ads if the sensors detect it’s about to rain, for example.
The cameras are able to recognise the make, model, and colour of passing cars, as well as the gender, age and mood of the passers-by. Even more worrisome is the free Wi-Fi offered by the billboard. It’s entirely clear that browsing will be monitored and the data used for advertising purposes.
LandSec, the owners of the screen, assure the public that no data is retained and that it doesn’t record video nor audio. Still, it’s very easy to do so.
Wired reports that several large brands, such as Hyundai, Coca-Cola and L’Oréal, have signed up for ad space. The ads won’t run all the time – the billboard will be divided into several sections displaying social media feeds, video streams, and news.
Vasiliki Arvaniti, LandSec’s portfolio director, explained that ‘every ten minutes a single brand will fill the entire screen with a single advert for 30 seconds’. This wasn’t possible before, since the billboard consisted of separate screens with differing colour display qualities.
The effectiveness of this tracking technology and its potential risks for a single particular individual probably aren’t high. The area gets enormous amounts of foot traffic and a single person is much more difficult, if not impossible, to isolate and target in a useful manner. We’d bud that the ‘security by ubiquity’ principle, but it’s a shaky one to base your privacy on.
It makes no sense to show an ad based on a car that has passed by the billboard, or to a single particular person whose data matches the target audience. But a substantial number of like-minded people, as detected by the billboard, could trigger such an ad to show.
Billboards, such as this one, have been a mainstay at Piccadilly Circus for over a century, since 1908. Perrier was the first brand that appeared on a billboard at the Circus.
However, in less-trafficked areas, we seriously think these billboards can be used to monitor the individuals’ whereabouts in addition to behavioural advertising. It’s not difficult to devise various malicious ways this data can be used – such as for theft and surveillance. A very scary prospect indeed.
Image credit: Florian Schäffer (CC BY-SA 4.0)