Various motoring blogs etc.(e.g. Honest John) have been reporting about the Castrol motor oil company's (ab)use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology for roadside "snoopvertising" billboard marketing purposes.
This Mail on Sunday report, however, uncovers Yet Another "data sharing without prior, individual, informed consent" scandal involving the notorious Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
By Christopher Leake
The Government's controversial Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has launched an investigation into how the car registrations of millions of motorists were sold for use by a giant oil firm.
Castrol spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on a campaign promoting its oils, using giant advertising billboards on five major routes in London.
But when The Mail on Sunday contacted the DVLA on Thursday, the campaign - which has also raised safety fears - was halted, just four days after it began. It was due to run for two weeks.
The DVLA says it restricts the release of data chiefly to car parking enforcement companies, solicitors, finance firms and property companies - but insists that in every case the privacy of motorists is 'properly safeguarded'.
That is obviously a lie.
However, the agency does sell data, including the registration number, engine size, year, make and model of individual cars, to a number of organisations, including five motor industry data providers.
This is used to ensure garages fit vehicles with the correct tyres, batteries and replacement parts. But sources have admitted that in the Castrol campaign, the DVLA data was passed on by one of the five companies to a third-party contractor, which then used it in contravention of the ban on the use of registration numbers for marketing purposes.
Both the DVLA and Castrol have refused to identify the data firm at the centre of the scandal while the official inquiry is being carried out.
Presumably these are the DVLA Accredited Trade Associations:
* The British Parking Association (BPA) - www.britishparking.co.uk
* The Association of British Investigators (ABI)- www.theabi.org.uk
* The Finance and Leasing Association (FLA) - www.fla.org.uk
* British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS) - www.bossuk.org
* Consumer Credit Trade Association (CCTA) - www.ccta.co.uk
Which one of these betrayed the DVLA data ?
Who is the "third-party contractor" ?
A spokeswoman for Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, the data watchdog, said last night that its officials had contacted the DVLA to seek assurances that drivers' personal details had not been released.
Remember that the definition of "personal data" includes partially or poorly "anonymised data", which can easily be cross referenced with another system e.g. Vehicle Number Plate and just the first part of the Post Code of the Registered Keeper address will be enough to identify the driver , in most cases.
The new Information Commissioner Christopher Graham needs to prove that he is not tainted by having been in charge of the Advertising Standards Authority, and therefore having had previous dealings with the Ogilvy advertising agency and with the Clear Channel Outdoor advertising billboard company, who seem to involved in this scheme - see our comments on the Clear Channel Create press release below.
There are two parts to the DVLA, the Vehicle data and the Driver data. This quote evades any mention of Driver data which might have been supplied to Castrol.
A DVLA spokesman said: 'We have not provided any vehicle information to Castrol or received any fee from them in relation to their campaign. As soon as we became aware that vehicle information had been used inappropriately we contacted the organisation concerned to ensure this was stopped and are urgently investigating the case.'
So what action will the DVLA actually take to punish those individuals and companies responsible ?
Chris Sedgwick, Castrol's UK & Ireland marketing director, said last night: 'We conducted this campaign as a short-term extension to the long-term service we have been running by web and text for years and believed it was entirely in line with the service provided by our data supplier.
'As soon as we were alerted to the issue we took steps to cease the interactive trial.
Castrol does not have direct access to DVLA data.'
So Castrol are trying to say that they are somehow not to blame either - what a surprise.
Will they punish their advertising agencies and other sub-contractors ?
This Clear Channel Create press release names some of the advertising people who have unprofessionally ignored, or sought to sneak around, the internationally recognised laid down in the Data Protection Act 1998.
The senior officials at the DVLA and the Directors of each of the companies mentioned are personally legally responsible for safeguarding the public's personal data.
The Clear Channel press release raises all sorts of Data Protection and personal Privacy and Security questions:
Castrol is set to break new ground with an innovative digital advertising campaign, aimed at delivering tailored product messaging to drivers via roadside billboards. Set to break on 21st September, the campaign supports Castrol's ongoing 'Right Oil Right Car' campaign.
The concept will link roadside digital 48 sheets with Castrol's oil selection service technology, giving passing drivers bespoke oil recommendations for their car. Camera technology, usually used for such purposes as the congestion charge or speed cameras, will be positioned ahead of billboards to pick up passing cars' registrations. The registrations will then be matched to the make and model of car via Castrol's access to the DVLA database, and deliver the correct oil recommendation for the vehicle on the digital billboard further down the road.
- Is this a real time, encrypted data link to the live DVLA system ?
- Or is it an unencrypted internet link to a copy of the database held at the Create division of Clear Channel ?
- Are there in fact, 5 or more copies of this data base stored locally in the ANPR computers at each of the advertising billboard sites - i.e. very vulnerable to copying or theft ?
- Is this database encrypted or not ?
This technology will allow, for the first time in the UK, a personalised billboard message. Taking less than two seconds from the camera registering a car's number plate to the bespoke message appearing on screen, Castrol will be able to provide over 200,000 drivers with the right oil for their car message over the two-week campaign duration.
- Are the Automatic Number Plate Recognition Cameras forward or backward facing ?
- If forward facing, are they also taking images of the drivers and passengers faces ?
- Is any of this data stored, if so for how long, and to whom is it passed on to ?
- Is it possible for any arbitrary "number plate" style message e.g. "DVLA 5UX" or "CTRL 5UX", to be accepted by the system, if it is correctly inserted into the field of view of the ANPR camera, thereby hijacking what is displayed on the billboard ?
Bespoke adverts will each be displayed for 7.5 seconds, and due to data protection, no registration plate data will be stored.
There needs to be a very clear and detailed explanation of this "data protection" claim.
The London Congestion Charge ANPR scheme, for instance, used to have a weasel worded claim that "no images of number plates" were stored for more than 24hours, which may well be true, however the processed ANPR data text files or database entries have always been kept for much longer, and are now handed over "in bulk , in real time" to the Metropolitan Police Service, for some vague national security "data trawling" excercise on the movements of millions of innocent people.
It is up to Castrol and their advertising industry sub-contractors to prove that no raw or processed ANPR data, including "engineering test" logfiles etc. are actually being collected by the equipment, and that there are no unencrypted copies of the DVLA data floating about.
Rob Stroud, marketing manager, from Castrol says: "We've enjoyed great success with our text and online registration plate oil selection service, and are very excited about taking it to the roadside with the launch of this new advertising concept. We're hoping that the unique method of message delivery will get significant cut through with drivers to deliver the Right Oil Right Car message."
There is a huge difference between an online or mobile phone based oil advice service, which people have to explicitly provide their vehicle details for, and this ANPR snooping system, which does not bother to ask for "prior, informed consent" from an individual
There does not appear to be any way for an individual to "opt out" of this snoopvertising scheme, which is a contravention of the laws and ethical Codes of Practice developed for personlised , direct mail or direct email or mobile phone SMS text message advertising. .
The concept was created by Ogilvy Advertising who will also lead on the creative, with media space and technology delivered by Clear Channel Outdoor's Create division, and media buying by Mindshare.
Ogilvy Advertising and Clear Channel Outdoor's Create division and Mindshare, should all have known better, and advised their client Castrol against this intrusive and probably illegal scheme.
The advertising will run at sites at five key arterial routes around London. The routes, with slow moving traffic, have been chosen to increase engagement due to traffic dwell times, and to ensure satisfactory health and safety regulations. The billboards will be situated at:
• Blackfriars - Stamford Street
• Lambeth - Vauxhall Cross
• Hammersmith - Fulham Palace Road
• Hounslow - Chiswick roundabout
• Kensington & Chelsea - Warwick Road
Rob Stroud concludes: "We're confident that the campaign will not only excite and intrigue drivers, but serve its purpose in helping motorists to understand the right oil right car message. If the campaign proves successful, we may consider a roll out to further sites including areas with longer dwell times such as forecourts."
No ! No ! No ! If they do roll out such an unnecessary and intrusive advertising campaign, then we will help to organise a consumer boycott in opposition to it.
Castrol's Right Oil Right Car campaign aims to educate drivers about the importance of using the correct oil for your car. The oil selection service is available via text service* or online at www.castrol.com/uk, and is currently promoted via on pack and in store communication.
Please send us digital photos, or online links to photos, from these ANPR advertising billboard sites, ideally showing the ANPR camera and computer snooping equipment and any of the people responsible for them.
Other examples of "snoopvertising" technolgy involving personalised advertising billboards or posters or web banner adverting include:
- Roadside snooping on car radio amplifier circuits (like a TV detector van does) , to determine which radio station a driver is tuned into and changing the advertising display according to various imprecise advertising stereotypes e.g. Country & Western versus Classical music tested out in the San Francisco Bay area.
- BlueTooth tracking of Mobile Phones with advertising spam sent via the "exchange business card details" functionality, when walking past an advertising poster - used recently in June 2009 by the City of London Police to send out anti-drugs propaganda messages.- Officers use Bluetooth to spread anti-drugs message
- The whole Deep Packet Inspection scandal involving the notorious Phorm which tries to analyse keywords and amend web pages on the fly, without any informed prior consent.