Big Brother: U.S. Senator Calls for Federal Investigation of Billboards Spying on the Public

Editor’s Note: Welcome… to 1984 meets Minority Report.


By Nicholas West

As we move more obviously into a Minority Report-style world, it still remains to be seen just how far the public is willing to let technology intrude upon their everyday lives.

One area that seems to be generating increased concern is the use of biometrics and mobile phone location data to identify shopping habits.

Several years ago a notice appeared at Promenade Temecula in California, and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. which advised shoppers that their cell phone signal would be used to track them as they move from store to store. Despite privacy assurances, that test-run produced enough outrage to force the UK maker of the technology, Path Intelligence, as well as mall management to halt the surveillance. Senator Charles Schumer was embroiled in the debate and subsequently put forth a Code of Conduct “to promote consumer privacy and responsible data use for retail location analytics.” At the time it was described as a step in the right direction, while other lawmakers still saw major privacy gaps.

Now this type of technology has trickled out of private enterprise and into public space. And, once again, Senator Charles Schumer is making statements that he seeks to rein it in.

At issue is a new type of billboard that uses facial recognition surveillance combined with mobile phone tracking to study travel and shopping patterns. The program, called RADAR, is the brainchild of Clear Channel Outdoor Americas working together with a range of tech companies including AT&T. Clear Channel has already rolled it out in more than 10 major markets and, if all goes according to plan, could blanket the country by the end of the year.

One of the major markets currently in operation is Charles Schumer’s New York. It is worth noting right up front that Charles Schumer has given mixed signals about his full dedication to civil liberties as he has backed other draconian measures such as a “No Ride” list for train travel, and legislation to severely restrict 3D weapons manufacturing. He also ruffled feathers when he suggested that military veterans should take a pay cut, but Congress should not. That said, on the issue of privacy, he’s been reasonably consistent; he was one who called for an FTC investigation over Google and Apple’s privacy policies. Nevertheless, it would be wise to keep in mind that when a professional politician speaks, it’s often helpful to have a dose of salt on hand. In this specific case, he is at least saying the right things:

New York Sen. Charles Schumer has dubbed Clear Channel Outdoor Americas’ so-called RADAR program “spying billboards,” warning the service may violate privacy rights by tracking people’s cell phone data via the ad space.

“A person’s cellphone should not become a James Bond-like personal tracking device for a corporation to gather information about consumers without their consent,” Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement ahead of a planned news conference Sunday in Times Square, where the company operates billboards.


At the very least, this should begin to open a more public debate about what already has been going on without many people being aware. Clear Channel admits to operating 675,000 billboards across the world. Naturally, the company insists that all data collected is anonymized – something we have heard time and time again from other companies and governments, only to be followed by data leaks, hacks, and various forms of mining.

Now is the time to become aware of these plans, as well as other even more advanced forms. Switzerland’s Project Skye is creating a fleet of drone billboards – no word yet on whether or not biometrics will be embedded. And perhaps most troubling with these high-tech billboards is something that I previously reported, but bears repeating in light of Schumer’s proposed investigation: “Hidden Cameras Are Being Used to Measure and Manipulate Political Views Around the World.” This agenda even has its own area of study, known as neuropolitics; and it is not limited only to dictatorial regimes.

It seems that the country to have first used this technology was Mexico in a 2012 campaign, and it continues today. Subsequently, campaigns in Poland, Turkey, and Colombia have gone on record with admissions of currently testing and employing these techniques. The following countries are listed as having pursued Neuropolitics in “limited ways” and/or intend to use the technology for upcoming campaigns:

  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Costa Rica
  • El Salvador
  • Russia
  • Spain
  • United States

While it is highly doubtful that Charles Schumer will go as far as revealing the possibility of using billboard tracking technologies in U.S. political campaigns, for now he is to be cautiously commended for bringing to light that which has already been hidden for far too long.

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