Don't look now, but that billboard may be tracking your cell phone

I’d been totally unaware of this particular wrinkle in the digital data and privacy wars until Chuck Schumer (of all people) pointed it out. While many of our libertarian friends are concerned over the police peering into our cell phones and monitoring our movements, it seems that the corporate world is getting in on the same game. Next time you’re passing some of the newer, glitzy billboards you see along the road or outside of the shopping mall, you may want to check in and see if your cell phone is chatting with it without your knowledge. This may sound like something out of Blade Runner, but it’s apparently already happening. (New York Daily News)

A billboard-based method of sneakily tracking Americans has drawn the ire of New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who said the sneaky technology reminds him of a “scary movie.”

Marketing firms have started placing high-tech billboards in cities across the county which can track peoples’ cell-phones to monitor which stores they enter, Schumer said Sunday in Times Square. The total number of these billboards is likely in the thousands.

“A personal cell phone should be just that, personal,” Schumer said. “It shouldn’t be used as a James Bond-like tracking device for corporations — especially without permission. This is like out of a scary movie.”

Since we’re talking about a marketing ploy rather than the DHS tracking your ammo purchases I’m not sure I’d call it “scary” so much as annoying, but the technology certainly bears keeping an eye on. When I first read through this story something didn’t add up for me. I can see how a billboard or other stationary tower could have the ability to talk to a cell phone as it passes by. Heck, that’s pretty much how cell towers work to begin with. But why would your phone talk back? I know my phone does a lot of chatting on a daily basis, downloading information and alerts from news outlets I follow, updating my podcast list and other bits of housekeeping. But those are all apps which I intentionally installed on my phone and even then the apps have to ask for permission to access various things like my location, camera, purchases, etc.

If I don’t have an app which specifically needs to talk to one of these retailer’s billboards (or at least an app for that retailer) then how could they drag any data out of my phone? Here’s where the story gets a bit more sinister.

One billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, one of the largest in the country, has acknowledged working with other firms, like AT&T, to scoop up the data. The info is then sold and used to sell products to specific consumers based on their buying habits.

Wait a minute. I’m using AT&T. Is that buried somewhere in the user agreement? Considering that the document is roughly the length of War and Peace I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it is. But that sounds like a very devious practice to me. It’s not on par with the government using Google Maps to monitor your every movement via your phone, but it’s still bothersome. Then again, our privacy rights are pretty much based on protecting us from the government, not Target or Walmart.

I’d like to hear from AT&T about this. In fact, I think I’ll send in a request and let you know if I hear anything back.