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December 22, 2002

The Billboards Are Listening

Are you similar to the other people zooming along the freeway alongside you? Apparently at different times of the day, the tastes of commuters vary. That's true enough that it's making it economically useful to change the content of billboards to better match the drivers who can see it. How do they tell who's who? These High-tech billboards tune in to drivers' tastes by picking up the radio frequencies that leak out of our car radios.

"The system uses a 'consumer monitoring system' developed by Mobiltrak of Chandler, Ariz., to pick up radio waves leaked from the antennas of up to 90 percent of all cars passing by and pinpoint the stations being played. Each station has a typical listener profile derived from detailed consumer surveys. The system will assess the most popular radio station during a given hour and target the ads to those drivers."

Privacy experts aren't worried about this since it doesn't pay attention to individual cars. Yet.

It would be interesting to watch the graph of who's on the road over the course of a day. As I drive the car pool to High Tech High every morning, am I flanked by other listeners of public radio, soft rock, or country? Maybe they should put up a billboard that actually answers that question. "Attention: you are surrounded by Rush Limbaugh listeners. Don't expect anyone to let you into their lane."