Posey's Tips & Tricks

Are Advertisers Turning to Biometrics?

Our future might be about to get a lot more annoying.

Recently, I have been hearing a lot of whisperings regarding advertisers looking into the use of biometrics as a tool for increasing online ad revenues. While I haven't heard anything definitive regarding how biometric-driven ads might work, I can confirm that the discussions around using biometrics in advertising are real. I also have a few thoughts as to what we might expect.

The first thing to come to mind is simple face detection. I'm not talking about facial recognition, but rather face detection, kind of like what a digital camera's auto focus uses to ensure that people in a photograph are always in focus. From an advertising prospective, an advertiser might use similar technology to find out if anyone is actually watching their ad.

The idea of integrating facial detection into a product isn't new. A few years ago, someone approached me about the idea of building a similar mechanism into a motorcycle. The idea being that the sensor would check to see if the rider is wearing a helmet and the engine would not start unless a helmet is detected. Incidentally, I turned down that particular project and made it clear to the individual that I would never purchase a vehicle that uses intrusive technology to enforce safety protocols (especially since the state where I live does not even have a helmet law).

At any rate, I could envision an advertiser using similar technology as a way of forcing someone to watch their ad. Imagine not being able to simply walk away for a few minutes while an ad plays. Instead, your device detects that you are no longer looking at the screen and pauses the ad until you get back. Such a practice would be akin to hijacking your computer for the duration of the ad.

Another way that advertisers might incorporate biometrics into their ads is through facial recognition. Shared devices have long been a problem for advertisers who wish to micro target consumers. I once allowed a close family member to borrow my laptop for a few hours. For some time afterwards, I was seeing ads and YouTube suggestions for things that were way outside of anything that I would have been interested in.

So with that in mind, consider how facial recognition might benefit advertisers. At the very least, they would be able to tell whether or not you are the one who is using your device. In fact, the software would not even necessarily have to identify you by name. It could theoretically create a profile mapping your face to the device's "primary user" profile.

But what if advertisers could do a full-blown facial recognition? That would open even more doors for advertisers, particularly if they partnered with others. Imagine for example that a traditional retailer installs smart cameras in their stores. They could establish a correlation between who has seen their ad online and who followed up by visiting the store, even if the person didn't ultimately end up making a purchase.

If this idea seems a little bit out there, then let me tell you about a car dealership near where I live. There were two times when I needed to turn around and used the dealership's parking lot to do so. Both times I received email messages from the dealership thanking me for visiting their lot. Think about that one for a moment. The dealership would have had to have scanned my license plate and then used a database (or, more likely, a combination of databases) to figure out who I am and what my email address is. What makes this even more unsettling is that both incidents occurred more than ten years ago. Just imagine what might be possible today.

So I have outlined several possible ways that advertisers might use biometrics, but the one way that I think that biometrics are most likely to be used (at least at first) is to determine customer sentiment.

The AWS cloud has several machine learning services available and one of these services is able to determine someone's sentiment based on text that they have typed. If a customer has posted a review for example, AI could be used to classify the review as positive, negative, hostile, etc. The same basic concept could easily be extended to facial analysis. By looking at someone's face while they view an ad, an advertiser could potentially discern that person's mood (happy, interested, agitated, board, etc.). Of course, if that happens, then I am guessing that the nearly universal feedback will be "this person is feeling impatient."

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 21-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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