Privacy fears abound as Piccadilly Billboard gets switched on

If you were worried that the government and enterprises are slowly but surely breaching your private space and watching your every move, the new 790-square-metre Piccadilly Billboard serves as a reminder of their newfound surveillance capabilities.

The massive Piccadilly Billboard will track your every move, read your expression and detect the make of your car everytime you cross it.

The iconic and over-a-century old billboard at Piccadilly Circus is back- this time as a massive 790-square-metre single screen that will allow companies to display giant adverts to the public. The new screen replaces a set of six screens that were previously joined together to cover the billboard's massive expanse.

However, that's not exactly why the billboard is catching everyone's attention. Switched on after a makeover that lasted nine months, it is, in fact, a modern advertiser's delight. Thanks to embedded facial recognition technology, it can track every move of passersby, read their expressions, age and gender and detect the make, model, and colour of passing cars to deliver targeted advertisements.

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'Screen content can be influenced by the characteristics of the crowd around it, such as gender, age group, and even emotions. It is also able to respond and deliver bespoke ad content triggered by surroundings in the area,' said Landsec, the owner of the billboard.

Privacy campaigners are worried that the billboard will be able to track every citizen, his/her vehicle and other private details to deliver targeted advertising, consent be damned. What's more, it will also offer Wi-Fi access to passersby to allow them to communicate with the screens, thereby tracking their devices as well.

'From a privacy and security point of view, we think [it] is incredibly intrusive. It literally is Minority Report,' said Renate Samson, CEO of Big Brother Watch to Sky News.

As far as the tracking of cars is concerned, it is also an indicator of how much companies want to know about you. Recently, Google Street View cars was used to gather 50 million images of street scenes in the United States. Using deep learning-based computer vision techniques, a team of researchers was then able to determine the make, model, and year of almost all vehicles. This is exactly one of the Piccadilly billboard's capabilities.

While determining a car's make and model using machine learning doesn't seem to be too intrusive, the researchers were able to use such details to 'accurately estimate income, race, education, and voting patterns' of their owners.

'The resulting associations are surprisingly simple and powerful. For instance, if the number of sedans encountered during a 15-minute drive through a city is higher than the number of pickup trucks, the city is likely to vote for a Democrat during the next Presidential election (88% chance); otherwise, it is likely to vote Republican (82%).

'Our results suggest that automated systems for monitoring demographic trends may effectively complement labor-intensive approaches, with the potential to detect trends with fine spatial resolution, in close to real time,' the researchers said.

Anticipating such concerns, Landsec says that the billboard will be used only to deliver targeted advertising and will not collect personal information of citizens.

'The new screen has the ability to react to external factors such as the weather and passing vehicles - though without collecting or storing any personal details,' it said.

'For example, the branded content displayed on the screen could change depending on the colour of vehicles. How the technology is used depends on the approach and creative being displayed by the brands.'