Thursday, October 16, 2008

Today's Customer Privacy Doomsday Scenario is Brought to You by IMM

I'm pretty sure I've run across this technology before (and certainly it's pretty similar to Arbitron's Personal People Meters), but for some reason when the WSJ starts talking about it, I start getting antsy:
A small media research company called Integrated Media Measurement is trying to bridge that research gap with a new technology that measures consumers' exposure to the audio in ads on television, radio, computers, mobile phones, DVDs and inside a movie theatre -- using a consumer's cellphone.

IMMI embeds its software into the cellphones of the company's 4,900 panelists. The software picks up audio from an ad or a TV show and converts it into its own digital code that is then uploaded into an IMMI database, which includes codes for media content such as TV shows, commercials, movies and songs.

IMMI's database then figures out what the cellphone was exposed to by matching the code. Cellphone conversations and background noise are filtered out by the software, IMMI says, since there is no "match" in the IMMI database.
Like I said, it sounds like the Personal People Meter, right? Well, "yes" and "no".  "Yes" in that consumers are walking around with electronic tracking devices that can scan for audio patterns and figure out media exposure from that.  "No" in that instead of carrying around a single-purpose given to you by a well-known marketing firm, the tracking is now taking place on the cellphone that's probably in your pocket or on your desk or table right now.

Of course today's users of IMM's software know that they're installing something on their phones and PDAs -- the program appears to be strictly opt-in. The initial panel is also quite small at around 4,900 people.  However, it's not hard to imagine a scenario where the firm would partner with a major carrier and offer subsidized cell plans in exchange for leaving the monitoring software switched on.  Rather than hype the source of these "discounted" plans, I'd be willing to guess that the carriers will instead bury the technical details in a gigantic End User License Agreement that nobody will ever read, just as is currently done with software products that embed tracking software. Suddenly, potentially millions of people's media consumption habits could be tracked without violating a single law (assuming that signing off on a EULA is akin to giving consent to conversation recording, or something like that).

The future doesn't have to play out this way, and it would be nice to think that we can count on the outstanding business ethics of these and other firms to keep consumers from unknowningly giving up more than they have to.

Personally, though, I think I'll be reading my EULAs a bit more closely from now on.

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5 comments:

neal said...

IMMI embeds its software into the cellphones of the company's 4,900 panelists. The software picks up audio from an ad or a TV show and converts it into its own digital code that is then uploaded .IMMI's database then figures out what the cellphone was exposed to by matching the code. Cellphone conversations and background noise are filtered out by the software.
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Bill Gerba said...

Hi Neal,

I agree, it does look like IMMI's current operations revolve around completely opt-in participation, which is of course how it should be. I was merely speculating about what could happen if the company, in partnership with a carrier, decided to be less than completely ethical.

Retail Media Exec said...

One major difference between this technology and the PPM is that the IMMI solution doesn't require broadcasters to embed an audio watermark. So ALL media with an audio signal can be measured, not just those who choose to participate.

Bill Gerba said...

That's a great point, and I think another thing that should be of concern to privacy advocates.

On the flip side, I could see why media planners might salivate at the data that such a program could produce :)

BlogMeister said...

Hey Bill:

Please forgive me for changing the topic. I looked for a subject index on this blog and couldn't find one, so I'm just posting on the most recent entry.

Are you guys planning any news coverage related to medical signs? That is, hospital signs, clinic signs, medical banners, other ways signage is used in the medical profession or health care industry? I’ve got a background in medical communication (writing and editing) and find myself working in the sign business. I’m trying to marry the two interests. Curious to find out more about medical signage, if such a thing even exists.

Thanks!

Don H.
Chester Springs PA