Threat Intelligence

Yahoo wants to spy on users through smart advertising


Yahoo has filed a patent for a type of smart billboard that would collect people's information and use it to deliver targeted ad content in real-time. 

Using a combination of sensors, including microphones and cameras located either on the billboard or on drones nearby, it would watch and listen to people near the billboard to get a sense of who they were and how they were reacting, which would help it to tailor what it showed them.

The patent showed that the billboard might work with advertising exchanges, meaning that it wouldn't just display its own ads, but might also put them devices including tablets, phones, smartwatches and TVs.

“In the past few years, online advertising has quickly become the primary channel by which advertisers reach out to consumers,” according to the patent application.

“The ubiquity of mobile devices and the ability to craft individualised marketing strategies to meet the needs and interests of specific consumers have made a compelling case for such techniques as the most efficient use of marketing budgets. Nevertheless, a significant portion of such budgets is still devoted to more traditional channels.”

According to one example in the patent, the application senses the make and model of vehicles driving past a billboard to put together a demographic model that can be used “in conjunction with information about the time of day and/or the day of the week (e.g., Monday morning rush hour) to select advertisements for display”.

Sensors would also detect if people are paying attention. The technology would track eyes and detect anyone looking directly at the ad; proximity and image recognition, to determine if they slow down as they pass the advert; and even using microphones to check for ad-related keywords being spoken in nearby conversation.

"For example, if it can be determined or estimated from sensor data associated with a public advertising display that more than some specific number of individuals were in a position to view specific advertising content, the placement of that content could be considered to be successful resulting in the advertiser being charged for its placement," the patent said.

Stephen Gates, chief research intelligence analyst at NSFOCUS, told that although the story timing for Yahoo is not the best, the concept of using real-time targeted adverts on electronic billboards, signage, placards, posters, etc. will likely happen. 

“It's just a matter of time. Many who have watched Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report, observed the directors demonstrate this very same concept. Remember, that movie was released 14 years ago. However, today there is no need to scan retinas. Having real-time access to mobile usage and tracking data may be all that is needed,” he said.

Michael Patterson, founder and CEO of Plixer, told SC that the biggest risks are that Yahoo could get hacked again and the information they've collected with this new service would be available on the black market. 

“If the billboards are effective, it could mean that the victims consume more of products they might not otherwise have purchased. Users can block the domains the data is uploaded to however, sometimes this blocks the user from using the service as well. Pretty much this appears to be business as usual. The bigger problem is how the data is taken to ensure the user knows about everything being harvested as well as the additional metadata that is sometimes taken such as the list of applications the user has installed on the device,” he said.

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