How Did That Billboard Recognize Me?

Apr 03, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

Remember in the movie, Minority Report, when the characters walked by a billboard and it changed to target the advertisement to that particular person or walked into a store and over the loudspeaker, it welcomed them and asked how they liked those pair of pants that had been purchased? That future is starting to become a reality with the use of RFID tags in products and not without serious privacy and security concerns.

Despite reports of the privacy and security problems of the Nike+iPod Sport Kit, companies and consumers continue to experiment with RFID. Sprint has developed two RFID applications based on customer loyalty cards that can identify a customer as he or she walks through a store. Microsoft is reported to have developed an active RFID system that can match your clothes or provide recipes based on the presence of ingredients. In January, MINI (the car maker) began to use RFID tags to conduct a targeted marketing campaign called "Motorby."

MINI installed interactive digital billboards in 4 U.S. cities, Chicago, Miami, New York and San Francisco (you can see one in San Francisco on I-80 approaching the Bay Bridge) and invited a few hundred MINI owners in these cities to join their pilot targeted advertisement campaign. The owners sign up on the MINI website (and answer a survey providing information about themselves) and MINI sends them a RFID key fob. When the MINI owner drives by the billboard, it displays a targeted message, such as "Looking good today, Scooter." If the pilot program is successful, MINI plans to expand the number of billboards in more cities and allow every owner to participate.

This advertising program raises some of the same security concerns as the Nike tracker. According to the program FAQ in the invitation email, no personal information is contained on the key fob. However, the key fob must contain some unique identifier that is linked to personal data in a MINI customer database. MINI also claims that only the MINI readers can trigger the key fob, but there have been plenty of examples of RFID cards being copied from a distance of a few feet or with commercially-available technology costing less than $100. See the IO Active handheld cloner. Just like with the Nike tracker, it isn't hard to imagine others tracking individuals using the RFID key they carry around with them. In addition, assuming the billboards accumulate logs of when each driver passes by that billboard, which begs the question: what kind of access will law enforcement (or even private third parties) have to that data?

Consumers should be wary of volunteering for these new advertising gimmicks. The RFID tag contains a unique identifier that will allow your activities to be monitored even without accessing any more information about you. Some states are even considering legislation to regulate use of RFID, including a bill introduced this year in Washington that would require companies to get consent from consumers before it could "collect, maintain and disclose information gathered by an electronic communication device." The ACLU, along with other organizations, issued a position statement about the risks to consumers of the use of RFID in consumer products. You can learn more about RFID technology and related privacy and security concerns at Don't Chip Our Rights Away!