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billboardsBillboards That Know You: I Have Met Big Brother And He is Me
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you sometimes feel that passing billboards know exactly what appeals to your own personal tastes? If you have feared revealing these thoughts might force a visit to the looney bin, fear not, for you are right. Read on about the big electronic eavesdropping phenomenon that is about to make everyone on the road just a bit more paranoid than before.

Do you like talk radio, rock, hip-hop, Bach, all or none of the above? No matter. Whatever your tastes, your car radio could be revealing them to people you don’t know and might not even want to know. If you are not a little paranoid already, this technology manufactured for the last four years by an Alabama based company known as Mobiltrak is enough to make you so. An especially equipped antenna dish is being utilized by companies to detect which radio stations drivers are listening to and then altering the messages played on their electronic billboards to match the demographic that clusters around those stations.

The brains behind this effort is veteran Birmingham radio executive Jim Christian, WERC-AM’s "Trivia Professor" from the 1970s. He says, "this will revolutionize the radio industry." Indeed, perhaps it already has. Mobiltrak equipment, mounted in unobtrusive shelters about the size of cable television boxes, can sample as many as 100,000 listeners per day. This provides, according to Christian, "a large-scale, perfectly random sample from 10% to 20% of the passing traffic." The company operates in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Toronto metropolitan markets and in more than 100 stand-alone retail locations outside of those markets.

billboardMobiltrak’s device relies on a little known fact about car radios: they don’t just receive signals; they also emit them. A car radio tunes into a particular station by mixing the signal from the ether with its own internally generated signal. It’s that very faint signal that the Mobiltrak dish picks up from several hundred feet away. It then records and sends the signal via modem to Mobiltrak, which then sends an e-mail report to its clients either on a daily or weekly basis. This provides for more informed advertising decisions.

Radio stations in "wired" cities like Los Angeles can tell where they are strongest and weakest, through data from hundreds of thousands of daily listeners. Once a statistical base is determined, they can monitor the success or failure of specific promotions, formats or commercials. Not surprising, the concept has caught the ever-watchful eye of Madison Avenue. According to Cynthia Evans, director of research for New York based The Media Edge and media buyer for Young and Rubicam, "We’re very interested in this technology because it ties together the use of media and traffic within a retail environment that moves us a little closer to the answer to the question of accountability in advertising."

Companies like concert mega-promoter SFX Entertainment are using it to find out what’s being played on customers’ radios as they pull into parking lots. The information is supposed to help businesses gauge the effectiveness of radio advertising campaigns. But the system, brilliant though it may be, is coming under fire from privacy experts. Many in this camp fear that the temptation to breach established boundaries of discretion will be too great for Mobiltrak to resist. "If it’s merely aggregate information, not tied to an individual, then it’s not really a concern," says Jason Catlett, president of the consumer privacy group known as Junkbusters. "But there’s an economic incentive to get down to the individual level, and a precedent for using the same technology to look at the individual householder. It would be of enormous interest to radio stations, which are paid by advertisers according to their audience demographics. Imagine if they could prove that more than 50 per cent of their audience makes over $75,000 a year!"

billboard sees you! According to Brooklyn Law School professor, Paul Schwartz, "Nobody would think they’re being monitored in a parking lot or that there would be something of value in listening to a radio station while they’re in that lot. But there is something of value here, and the people listening don’t get any of it. They’re being polled without knowing they are in a poll." In contrast, when the local supermarket videotapes your weekly grocery run, or Dell monitors your tech support call, the companies let you know you’re being observed. The major traditional measurement companies, like the Arbitron Company and Nielson Media Research even pay a small stipend to the people they survey.

Mobiltrak and its clients maintain that the monitoring device performs a random sweep of radios, but does not identify the car or its occupants, and therefore does not infringe on people’s privacy. "It’s not personal, it’s generic," says Mike Ferel, president and chief executive of SFX Entertainment. "We get information that a car is listening to 97.5, not the person listening to 97.5." A random sampling of radio station "hits" might be considered relatively harmless, and not much different from an Internet site’s recording the number of hits that it gets. Coupled with a monitoring devise and a digital camera that reads license plates however, there is no question that these companies will now have the power to match car owners to their favorite radio stations. The fact that Mobiltrak works without the cars’ occupants being aware that their listening habits are being monitored is one issue that can’t quite be explained away sufficiently to appease the concerns of privacy experts.

David Banisar, the Silver Springs Maryland based deputy director of Privacy International, said that "Mobiltrak is conducting the kind of random electronic surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency, which is the government’s electronic-intelligence gathering organization. Even though Jim Christian maintains that the sampling is entirely random, Banisar says that he worries about the potential merging of the technology with intelligent vehicle highway systems and location-reporting cellular phones that could allow Mobiltrak to zero in on individuals. He maintains that this is very much like the Web, where information is secretly collected without any discussion of whether or not it should be.

billboardAdvocates of Mobiltrak, however, cannot get enough of it and maintain that it provides a valuable service. Lenny Sage, a vice president at Sage Automotive Group in Los Angeles, said his company, which "spends in excess of seven figures every month" on advertising, has seen a measurable increase in sales by using the Mobiltrak technology to target its advertising dollars. The company’s Universal City Nissan dealership, which Sage contends is the largest Nissan dealership in the world, with annual sales of $250 million, used Mobiltrak to determine that it had failed to advertise on a station to which a large number of passing cars were tuned. According to Sage, "we started advertising on that station, and sales went up 22 per cent in one month!"

Mobiltrak is not the first to monitor people’s radio choices. The British Broadcasting Corp’s television licensing group deploys vans to drive down residential streets and detect oscillator signals from televisions inside homes. The group then verifies with its database that each homeowner has a license for the television set, which is required in England. "Television license enforcement is in fact, the main reason women end up in prison in England," says University of Cambridge cryptographer Ross Anderson. "The detector vans operate during the day, so when they find an unlicensed set and knock on the door, it’s usually a woman who answers. (Jack the Ripper could have used this technique instead of roaming the streets of Whitechapel by night looking for victims.) A fine of 1,000 pounds is imposed and if the woman can’t pay it right there on the spot, she goes directly to jail. (She doesn’t pass go or collect $200 either.)

And so, my friends, if you think someone’s got their eye on you all the time, don’t run to the psychiatrist. You are not crazy, even though this new technology has the potential to make you so. Accept your fate for there’s truly nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, as the old rock and roll song of long ago so aptly put it. The only problem is that one wonders what will come next. Will secret cameras observe us in pajamas to determine our sleeping habits? Will they be hidden in refrigerators to see what we are eating and target our culinary tastes? There’s no way to know the future, but it sure looks grim to me.

Tune in again next week, same time, and same station for the newest in these developments. I can’t promise I will be there though. Things are getting so bad, I might not ever again leave my house!

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"Technology has enabled man to gain control over everything except technology."

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