In the information age, surveillance isn’t just for the police. Marketers want to watch you, too: what you do, where you go, what you buy. Integrated Media Measurement, Inc. wants to know what you watch and what you listen to—wherever you are.
They do this by turning traditional ratings collection on its head. Instead of a Nielsen-like system, which monitors individual televisions in an effort to figure out who’s watching, IMMI measures individual people and tries to figure out what they’re watching (or listening to). They do this through specially designed cell phones that automatically eavesdrop on what’s going on in the room they’re in:
The IMMI phone randomly samples 10 seconds of room audio every 30 seconds. These samples are reduced to digital signatures, which are uploaded continuously to the IMMI servers.
IMMI also tracks all local media outlets actively broadcasting in any given designated media area (DMA). To identify media, IMMI compares the uploaded audio signatures computed by the phones with audio signatures computed on the IMMI servers monitoring TV and radio broadcasts. IMMI also maintains client-provided content files, such as commercials, promos, movies, and songs.
By matching the signatures, IMMI couples media broadcasts with the individuals who are exposed to them. The process takes just a few seconds.
Panel Members may sometimes delay watching or listening to a program by using satellite radio, DVRs, VCRs, or TiVo. IMMI captures these viewings with a “look-back” feature that recognizes when a Panel Member is exposed to a program outside of its normal broadcast hour, and then goes back in time (roughly two weeks) to identify it.
These cell phones are given away to test subjects, who get free service in exchange for giving up all their privacy.
I’m sure the company will claim not to actually eavesdrop on in-room conversations, or cell phone conversations. And just how different are these special phones, anyway? Can the software be installed on off-the-shelf phones? Can it be done without the owner’s knowledge or consent? The potential for abuse here is enormous.
Remember, the threats to privacy in the information age are not solely from government; they’re from private industry as well. And the real threat is the alliance between the two.