Big Brother Watch’s most recent investigation reveals that several UK advertising firms and mobile companies are trading information on their users with data brokers to create hyper-personalised billboard ads.
Jake Hurfurt, Head of Research and Investigations shared: “We’ve uncovered new ways in which millions of people’s movements and behaviors are tracked to target us with ads on the streets, resulting in some of the most intrusive advertising surveillance we’ve ever seen in the UK.”
German adtech company Adsquare leads “pioneered” this phone-to-billboard strategy, with its record of collecting location and behavioural data from at least 8 million UK numbers. While Adsquare claims to comply with privacy policies, in 2020, one of their data brokers, Outlogic (formerly X-Mode), was accused of selling data to the US military resulting in their ban from Apple and Google’s app stores.
Several other companies, including two of UK’s biggest billboard advertisers: Clear Channel and Outdoor, have been found to have utilised high-tech tools like facial detection technology developed by Quividi, a French firm. The technology is designed to scan close to 100 faces at once in order to analyse, in granular detail, who pays attention to which ads and to what extent. The report also found that niche interest groups are targeted by these firms to serve them specifically targeted ads crafted from user data that includes GPS tracking information, almost in real-time.
The report further highlights that the manipulative nature of algorithms trap users into consenting to vague terms and conditions. Arvind Narayanan, a professor of computer science at Princeton University emphasizes on the intrusive nature of these ads which “erode the idea of public spaces”. Matthew Crain, an associate professor of media and communication at Miami University shares that advertising firms invest in resources to collect data on their users to cut other advertising costs.
In light of growing concerns over lack of transparency and accountability on the part of corporations dealing with data, public policy actors are actively advocating for better legislation and data reform.