Tech & Rights

Milan Central Station's Spying Totems: Reality, or a 'Black Mirror' Episode?

Advertising totems in the Milan's train station have facial recognition software in order to collect passenger data without authorization.

by Ilaria Giacomi
Central Station, Milan.

The advertising totems in Milan's Central Station might be doing more than trying to sell you something.

Giovanni Pellerano, founder of the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Rights, says the ad boards are also being used to collect passengers' information without their consent. Pellerano has brought the issue to the attention of the national privacy ombudsman.

Your data for sale

By thoroughly examining one of the machines – one that had been out of order for some time – Pellerano discovered that these totems are more than what they seem: in addition to showing advertisements and train schedules, they contain software capable of facial tracing, which would allow the machine to register the sex, age and attention level of whoever is looking into it.

The purpose is to sell the gathered information to marketing companies, in order for them to assess the success of their campaigns, or to program new ones.

This kind of system is not new, and similar devices are widely used under different circumstances. What raised the interest of the privacy ombudsman in this case, however, is their operation in a public location coupled with the fact that people viewing them are unaware of the totems’ function.

Machines violate privacy

The commercial use of collected information increases the issues related to privacy: personal data are to be used for commercial purposes only when specifically allowed by the persons concerned, which is not the case with these totems. Involved persons have the right to information on the treatment of their data and, most importantly, are entitled to forbid the use of their data if they decide so.

The company responsible for the installation and functioning of the machines in the Milan station will therefore have to answer to the concerns raised by the privacy ombudsman, and will most likely be forced to guarantee anonymity and track people just as bystanders, without registering any additional detail.

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