Brands claim innocence in response to digital billboard controversy

Controversy surrounding smart billboards in The Netherlands has prompted major brands to assure customers that their privacy remains a priority.

Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the Dutch national railway company, has given a green light for advertisers to use smart digital billboards with cameras at the country’s biggest railway stations.

The billboards use cameras that can record multiple people at once and collect data about how much time they spend looking at a particular ad, as well as determine their gender and age.

Various civil and digital rights organisations, as well as the Dutch data protection authorities, have objected to the billboards. They claim that such collection of data may constitute a serious breach of privacy, illegal under Dutch law, the Dutch broadcaster NOS reports.

“Tracking people in a public place, especially if you cannot avoid that place, is problematic if it is for a commercial purpose,” Ton Siedsma, a researcher at the digital rights organisation Bits of Freedom, told The Scoop.

In response to these concerns, Exterion Media, an outdoor advertising company, say that the privacy of travellers is guaranteed. Billboard cameras do not register emotions or recognise faces and all the collected data is anonymised, the company assured NOS.

The Dutch data protection authority, Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, is currently investigating the legality of the cameras.

Brands advertising with Exterion Media claim that they take the privacy of their customers seriously.

“We are not involved in any possible test phase of Exterion Media with collecting details such as gender, age, emotions via billboards,” Kirsten van Zandwijk, the communications manager at the Coca-Cola branch in The Netherlands, told The Scoop.

“The mutual agreements on ethics and privacy laws are always leading for us as a company,” she further stated.

Representatives of Amstel Bier declined to provide The Scoop with relevant information regarding the company’s stance on the issue, claiming that all the essential information regarding the company is outlined in the company’s website.

Heineken International B.V., a brewing company which owns the Amstel branch, did not respond to further inquiries.

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