When I was at the National Retail Federation Big Show in New York last month, I visited the Intel booth, perhaps the most talked-about exhibit at the show. Never one to be out-dreamed or out-spent, Intel had an impressive array of what can be done on display.  Perhaps the most popular part of their exhibit was the Kraft-sponsored interactive retail self-service application.  I wrote about it here. Let’s be clear about two things: I know the demonstration was 100% show-ware, and will probably never be deployed in the form that was shown at NRF. That’s cool, and Intel does position it as a demonstration, not as a product for sale. This post is not about Intel. And I am hardly a Luddite. In fact, I am pretty much the opposite. But the demonstration really rang a bell with me based upon my participation with the Digital Signage Federation’s Standards Committee, which was working on a set of Digital Signage Privacy Standards at the time.

My demo session (the product in question appears here at about the 2:00 mark) included a discussion of “grabbing your shopping list from your smartphone”, suggesting recipes based on planned purchases, tailoring offerings based upon video analytics, and offering free samples. By the way, the irony of offering Oreo samples after a session on “Healthy Meals” was not lost on me, but this was a trade show, and for many people those Oreos were a yummy lunch. The person conducting the demo talked about grabbing information off my smartphone as if it was no big deal, which technically is isn’t. He seemed to think that tailoring the menu offerings based on what the Cognovision app assessed me to be was not a big deal, either. Presumably, if we had gone through the whole nine yards, it would have accessed the Sarcastic Middle Aged Male database table for suggestions. At least I hope so. At the end of the demo, he asked me to smile, and pointed out the camera at the top of the screen. It turned me into a football bobblehead, and provided a link to a web site where I could access the picture. OK, I get it. Cute, and packaged nicely for the local 6 PM news feature. But I was disturbed.

You see, I can now understand the issues that all of this brings up. Extracting my shopping list, even with my permission, makes me wonder. What else could or might be extracted? Do I want my shopping list displayed on a 50 inch screen? What if there are items on the list I consider private or potentially embarrassing? And the picture: is it being stored? Is it being associated with personally identifiable information extracted from my phone or frequent shopper card? Do I want Kraft or the retailer to know that much about me? Proponents of the technologies involved will be quick to say that the shoppers will benefit from a more relevant and enriching experience based on better information about them. And it is reasonable to think that there is some kind of express or implied opt-in involved. I am all for relevance and reasonable assumptions. But now I am also all for making it clear to consumers what is and is not being collected, acted upon and stored, and what their options are regarding each. It is called building trust.

If you don’t think consumers care about privacy, ask Janet Napolitano about body scanners in airports. Only when travelers were “assured” that images were not stored and that only TSA employees isolated from the scanner itself were viewing the images did the furor die down. Sort of. Travelers were permitted to opt for a very intimate pat down if they wanted to refuse the scanner. It did not play well in Peoria, even after there was a degree of transparency. If you need further evidence, read the comments from retail experts on a write-up on the Kraft demo at RetailWire.  Folks, privacy is a real issue.

Digital signage desperately needs to make its case to advertisers regarding the legitimacy of traffic counts, impressions, dwell time and demographics. This is the basis for charging premium rates for advertising on a network. Anonymous Video Analytics (AVA) technology like the Cognovision application used in the Intel demo is one of many approaches to this problem, and certainly has the potential to drive customized content based on video analytics, which is a good thing. But just as much as the industry needs to build trust with advertisers, it must foster acceptance with consumers. One way to do that is to make it clear what types of data are being collected, and to adopt the concepts of transparency, individual participation, purpose specification, data minimization, use limitation, data quality and integrity, security and accountability. The DSF’s Digital Signage Privacy Standards released last week (download link available here) describe all of that in great detail. It is not light reading, but I’d suggest it as important reading. Harley Geiger, a committee member, provides an excellent Q&A on the Standards on Dave Haynes’ Sixteen:Nine blog. Harley taught us a great deal as we tackled this sensitive issue, and I think he learned a lot from the other members of the committee along the way. It was a good exercise, and we all hope that the output will spark more discussion across the industry. The Privacy Standards are completely voluntary, and of course are not policed. If network operators don’t think need any stinkin’ privacy standards, they are free to ignore them. But being transparent about camera usage, data collection and consumer options will turn out to be a good business practice. It will not slow the use of properly utilized AVA and other technologies: it may actually have the reverse effect, driving consumer acceptance of something they will now understand. Good business practices are optional however, and because people take different paths, not all businesses are the same.

One industry veteran recently tweeted after seeing the Intel demo that “the industry needs to get on top of this stuff” before it gets out of hand. The industry now has. Let’s keep talking about it.