Scientia est potentia

“Smart signs” are the latest attempt by business and government to peek into our private lives

Photo By Larry Dalton

You’re driving along the Capital City Freeway past Cal Expo, grooving to the music on your favorite radio station, when your eyes catch the advertisement on the electronic billboard. It promotes just the product you’ve been wanting, as if the advertisers had read your mind.

In a way, that’s exactly what Alaris Media Network Inc. wants to do. Well, maybe it’s not your thoughts Alaris wants to read, but it wants to read your age, your income bracket, your buying tastes and the other demographic information Alaris needs to target-market advertising messages at you most effectively.

Starting this week, Alaris will begin shooting sensors at the cars that approach its electronic billboard, to pick up what radio station most of the block of traffic is listening to. The sensor immediately will translate that information through a computer program onto the billboard by switching to an advertisement aimed at that demographic market.

“We’re the first ones that are really going to do it,” said Alaris Chief Executive Officer Tom Langeland. “There is all kinds of data that we’ll be able to extrapolate here. It’s very cutting-edge.”

The sensors pick up “frequency leakage,” which are the small emissions made by an antennae set to a certain frequency, using technology that has been in development for five years. Initially, it was deployed in Phoenix shopping centers to hear what customers were listening to as they pulled into the parking lot, so retailers could tailor signs and promotions to those customers.

The Sacramento-based Alaris plans to use these “smart signs” at Cal Expo, along Highway 99 near Manteca and in Folsom in addition to five signs in Los Angeles and five in San Francisco. Langeland said the innovation has generated “a frenzy of media coverage,” and interest from a wide variety of would-be advertisers (including SN&R, although no final decisions have been made).

Yet, although we might marvel at this new technology and even respect the initiative of companies to pinpoint advertising to their most likely customers, there remains something vaguely unsettling about this kind of consumer espionage and financial profiling.

Never before have citizens been as watched and studied as they are right now, by both the private and public sectors. It’s to the point where a certain amount of paranoia is entirely justified. Those who don’t think someone is watching them are now the crazy ones.

Video cameras watch our movements in most public places. Sacramento Police Capt. Sam Somers just shrugged when asked for a ballpark estimate of how many surveillance cameras there were in the city.

“I wouldn’t be able to even guess,” he said. “You’re looking at all the theft-prevention and security cameras that are inside and outside all the buildings. We got them here at the police station to surveil our parking lots and for interviews. You got red-light cameras, the traffic folks have cameras, the media have cameras for live shots, so I wouldn’t even be able to guess.”

Yet simply watching us wasn’t enough. Companies needed to know more about our habits. So, all the major grocery chains bribed us with price discounts into getting “club cards,” so they could track our shopping habits and create financial profiles of each of us.

Those profiles became more complete when rounded out by detailed information from our credit-card companies, banks that glean personal information from our loan applications, webmasters who track our Internet usage, telemarketing researchers who know when we’re most likely to answer our phones—all information that is sold and traded among corporations to understand us better.

“I think the public has become more educated about what it means to have your financial information sold,” Senator Jackie Speier told SN&R last week after she introduced Senate Bill 1, her fourth attempt in as many years to give consumers a say over how their personal financial information is used and transferred. “My only mantra is: You have to give the consumer the option to say no.”

It’s an admirable effort to stop the problem from getting worse, but it may be too late for most of us. The forces of capitalism have worked aggressively in recent years to create profiles of how we behave, and it now appears that the government is also ratcheting up its Big Brother tactics.

When terrorists flew airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, triggering President George Bush’s declaration of a “war on terrorism,” the executive branch became obsessed with domestic espionage.

Already, the government had a variety of prying-eye tools at its disposal, such as detailed satellite imagery, telephone wiretaps and other eavesdropping techniques, and even ultraviolet sensors that can make people’s walls as transparent as windows.

Yet, since last year, through executive orders as well as legislative acts like the USA Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act, government officials have sought an unprecedented expansion of their authority to pry into our private lives.

The old tools of wiretaps and subpoenas used against American citizens became much easier to attain, and the feds have borrowed on private-sector marketing techniques to profile us, such as seizing records from libraries and booksellers about our tastes in reading materials.

Even more Orwellian is the Pentagon Information Awareness Office’s new Total Information Awareness program, which seeks to “mine data” from all of our e-mails, phone conversations, Web wanderings and the financial profiles already compiled by corporations, and to store it all in a “virtual centralized database,” with the idea being to make connections that might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Both the public and private sectors say they have good reasons for spying on us and have only the best of intentions. Corporations want to understand our tastes and choices better, so they can serve us with better products and services. Government watches us to save us from the terrorists and other evildoers in our midst.

Seemingly sound arguments can be constructed in both cases, with all kinds of doomsday case studies cited as proof. Yet the notion of profiling still strikes most of us as creepy, which is why citizens and groups at both ends of America’s ideological spectrum—from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Judicial Watch—have been trying to sound the alarm, even though most in the mainstream center have simply accepted the changes as inevitable.

The motto of the Information Awareness Office is “scientia est potentia,” Latin for “knowledge is power.” Indeed it is. So, the question becomes how much power we want to give government officials like John Poindexter, the lying former Iran-Contra figure who now heads the IAO, or to the corporate predators who have pilfered our 401(k)s and sold out the public trust for the sake of higher profits.

Langeland, Alaris’ chief executive officer, is just trying to give modern marketing a high-tech boost, and he’s probably sincere in his belief that he’s not inappropriately invading anyone’s privacy but simply better serving his clients.

Yet his “smart signs” do steal just a little more of our power from us, our power to believe in our own autonomy and in the serendipity of signs we pass on the road of life, leaving us ever more suspicious, cynical and paranoid.