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Ads Might Be Looking At You

Steve Johnson
San Jose Mercury News
March 15, 2010

Using technology from companies such as Cisco and Intel, advertisers are creating a new breed of digital signs that can be customized depending on a viewer's age and gender.

Already starting to appear in selected malls and other spots around the country, the signs could revolutionize retailing, but their intrusiveness has led to criticism from privacy advocates and some nervousness in the marketing industry.

"The vast majority of people walking in stores, near elevators and in other public and private spaces have no idea that the innocent-looking flat screen TVs playing videos may be capturing their images and then dissecting and analyzing them for marketing purposes," the nonprofit, Southern California-based World Privacy Forum warned in January. "Controls need to be put in place now, before this technology runs amok."

Businesses insist the signs are good for them and consumers because they offer focused and effective advertising. The burgeoning market has caught the eye of Silicon Valley companies, including Cisco, which has a campus in Research Triangle Park. Cisco makes gear that displays images and management software for the signs. It's not a huge business yet, said Thomas Wyatt, general manager of digital media systems, but it's growing. "These are really emerging technologies," he said.

The trend stems from a desire among marketers to make ads more effective by making them more relevant to those seeing them. Web ads customized to a user's interests and demographics have been a staple for companies like Google and Yahoo for years.

The practice worries the Center for Digital Democracy. In a letter to the federal government, the nonprofit public-interest organization warned against letting the practice proliferate "without strong privacy and consumer health-related safeguards in place."

And any ad targeting makes some people uncomfortable. A survey of 1,000 adults last year by the University of California-Berkeley and University of Pennsylvania found 66 percent opposed such pitches.





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