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Digital OOH: Could Public Wariness Over Privacy Spill Over to Digital Sign-Cell Phone Links?

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California finds that 48 percent of Internet users 16 years old and older are worried about businesses checking their identity on the Internet.

By way of comparison, the research -the "Digital Future Study"- reveals that only 38 percent are concerned about the government checking up on them online. What's going on and why is this relevant to digital signage, you may be asking.

On the surface, the concept is quite appealing. Digital out-of-home signs enabled with the right wireless technology could give smartphone-toting shoppers a way to interact with what is displayed and even deliver special promotional messages to their handsets.

Where things get a little dicey for this technology is with the correct notion that wireless cellphone communications is two-way. Some are likely to worry that the wireless link is somehow enabling the sign to retrieve personal information. Others, probably more accurately, won't give it a second thought. Still others may view it as a positive because the interaction via cellphone lets those responsible for the interactive digital signage content to collect information about search requests and modify what's presented to better serve consumers.

The "Digital Future Study" seems to suggest that a large percentage - nearly half - of shoppers may look suspiciously at digital signs linked wirelessly to their smartphones. A press release announcing the release of the study June 3 quotes Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism as saying many people "are worried that the Big Brother in our lives is actually Big Business."

"Internet users have major concerns about corporate intrusion - and who can blame them?" the press release quotes Cole as saying.  "Considering the recent revelations about covert surveillance of personal behavior through GPS tracking and other related issues, we believe that user concerns about the involvement - some would say encroachment - of companies into the lives of Internet users represent a significant issue."

Indeed, it was recent revelations that Apple and Google Android smartphones were surreptitiously tracking the movements of customers that originally prompted my questioning whether or not wireless connections between digital signs and smartphones might do more harm than good.

With the public being bombarded by commercial messages pitching services to protect against identity theft, news that cellphones are keeping tabs on peoples' movements and being asked by cashiers for their phone numbers simply to make a purchase at a grocery or hardware store, it's not too surprising that so many people are vary of Big Business knowing their identity. Nor would it be very surprising if many members of the public look askance at the signage-cellphone link.

No one can be certain if that will be the case. But I think findings like those of the "Digital Future Study" suggest marketers and other communicators responsible for deploying digital signage should think long and hard about the risks and the benefits of adding the ability to link with wireless smartphones before moving forward.

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