Minority Report advertising is already here: privacy at CES 2013, day 1


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Qualcomm snapdragon chipsThere’s a lot going on at 2013 CES, the world’s largest tech conference held each year in Las Vegas, and privacy themes underscore almost every product announcement or futuristic gadget. We walked the halls and navigated the booths to share some of the most interesting privacy-impacting tech products.

Minority Report ads in real life are already here

Remember that scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise’s character walks into a mall and digital ads all around him continually pitch him by name? Well, that technology’s basically here already, except instead of scanning your eyes to target you, it scans the smartphone in your pocket.

Just by using a smartphone, you’re already on your way to hyper-targeted location-based advertising that really knows who you are. It’s a scene straight from science fiction, but it’s here today. It’s called Gimbal, and it’s a context-awareness program made by Qualcomm that app developers can embed into their products. 

Gimbal interest sensing

Gimbal’s interest sensing builds a profile about who you are just by examining how you use your phone.

Qualcomm, which has been in the news the past day for a cringe-inducing CES keynote trying extremely hard to portray Millenials, is the largest maker of mobile phone processing chips. These chips are silently collecting your personal info to build detailed profiles about who you are, simply by being built into the hardware of your phone.

It’s called “interest sensing.” They analyze where you go; how many phone calls you make, when, and to whom; which apps you have and which you use most often; how many texts you send; and other phone usage stats to compile a personal profile about you. You don’t have a say in this; it happens just because the Qualcomm chip is powering your phone.

We talked with a Gimbal developer who showed us one of these profiles. It looks like this:

Gimbal advertising personal profile

This was the personal profile of a Gimbal developer we talked to at CES.

Gimbal geofencingThe Minority Report-esque advertising happens when you’re carrying your phone and you step into an area called a “geofence,” a digital boundary in physical space that makes the “phone aware of visited locations.” It might be a mall store or an area of sidewalk, for example. Once you walk into the geofenced area, you trigger text advertising sent to your phone that targets you based on your personalized profile and where you currently are. For example, your phone knows you’re a woman in a relationship and it’s a Friday night, and when you drive by the movie theater, it’ll text you an ad about a romantic comedy that just came out.

Gimbal’s privacy policy makes it clear that you won’t get these ads without your express decision to opt in, but it’s unclear whether Qualcomm chips collect your data and build your profile without your knowledge or consent. In other words, you can’t avoid getting profiled, but you won’t get the super-personalized location-based ads unless you want them.

There are plenty of cool aspects to Qualcomm’s chips, including one we experienced firsthand at CES where a Qualcomm-powered audio demo made sound through a normal pair of headphones feel as though it were full surround acoustics. Plus the new Snapdragon chips significantly cut down on battery use, which is a big deal for mobile phones. It’s clear that Qualcomm’s doing big things with mobile, but we hope they’re keeping consumers’ privacy interests in mind while they build this technology.

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