Digital kiosks collect your phone’s data if you go near them

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Privacy concerns arise over data collection by digital signs in the Boston area in the US.

NEW YORK, March 27: Digital signs scattered throughout the Boston area are sparking concerns as they collect data from the phones of unsuspecting passersby.

Manufactured by Soofa, a technology and advertising company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, these 7-foot devices, resembling oversized Amazon Kindles, have proliferated in cities and towns across 18 states, including Boston, Revere, Somerville, Chelsea, and other Massachusetts communities.

Brookline, a town in Massachusetts, approved the installation of these signs approximately six years ago, touting them as information hubs providing town updates, event calendars, and interactive features. However, recent revelations have unveiled a darker side to these seemingly benign structures.

According to Brookline Town Administrator Chas Carey, the kiosks discreetly collect data from smartphones, without the knowledge of the individuals nearby. This data is then utilized to assess the effectiveness of the messages displayed on the signs.

“Soofa’s kiosks are solar-powered with ‘state-of-the-art sensors’ that have ‘the ability to measure and analyze’ cellphone data of potential customers, tracking people’s engagement within feet of the device,” explained Carey.

While such technology may be advantageous for marketing purposes, experts warn of potential risks associated with data privacy and security.

“Even at the most basic level, your cellphone data actually gives out a lot of information,” stated David Gerzof Richard, CEO of Big Fish PR. “Once this data is created, it’s stored someplace. How are they protecting it, and are they selling it?”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has initiated a campaign urging lawmakers in Massachusetts to enact legislation such as the Location Shield Act to safeguard individuals’ privacy rights. Without such protections, data brokers could exploit digital information collected by companies like Soofa for profit.

In response to the growing concerns, Soofa emphasized its commitment to data privacy, stating that it does not collect any identifying data from individuals or devices beyond the MAC address. The company asserted that no data correlation is performed, and the information is not shared with any third party.

Despite the revenue generated for local governments through advertisement sales, some officials remain skeptical about the overall benefits of these digital signs. Brookline Select Board Vice-Chair John VanScoyoc criticized the intrusion of these structures into public spaces, questioning their value beyond profit-driven motives.

With the contract with Soofa set for renewal in 2025, Brookline plans to reassess the utility of these kiosks, particularly in the context of upcoming events like the Boston Marathon, where they may be used for public service announcements and data tracking.

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