The Malls Have Ears: New Technology Eavesdrops On Your Car Stereo

MobilTrak and Navigauge aim to give advertisers sharper eyes ... and ears.

You're a 17-year-old girl who loves Usher and Diet Pepsi, shops at Target and listens to the R&B station in your city. Imagine your surprise when you walk into the local Target and a clerk hands you an exclusive Usher single with a Diet Pepsi coupon and tickets to a show sponsored by your local station.

Creepy, right? Like, how did they know?

One way might be MobilTrak. The Phoenix-based company helps clients monitor the airwaves by using a new technology that peeks into your car, letting them instantly know what station you're listening to as you drive by one of their receivers. The information they gather can't tell them who you are or what car you're driving in, but for advertisers, the instant feedback is priceless.

"Say you own Joe's Chevrolet and you advertise on local radio and want to learn more about your customers," said David Boice, MobilTrak's managing partner.

"You take this bread-box-size unit with an antennae on it and put it up on a light pole in your parking lot, and as cars pass by you can tell what they're tuned in to and make more intelligent decisions about what ads might appeal to that customer. Like, for instance, if you're listening to a particular station at a particular time of day you are likely to be a young person who uses the Internet and likes urban music."

MobilTrak works by picking up on a weak electric signal sent out by your car's radio, allowing the company to not only track which station you're listening to, but even figure out which song. The two-year-old company currently has 200-300 of its solar-powered units deployed in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Charlotte, North Carolina, and plans to expand to more than 100 markets by mid-2007. At a rate of 50,000 cars a month, Boice said MobilTrak is on pace to monitor more than 1 million cars in Washington, D.C., alone this year.

The units — which cost $500-$6,000 a month depending on the size of the company and number of boxes deployed — can detect signals from cars up to 140 feet away, picking up only on FM signals, though Boice said MobilTrak plans to offer AM and satellite service by the end of the year.

If you're already paranoid about cameras in ATMs, elevators, at red lights and on street corners, don't worry — Boice said MobilTrak has no plans to expand into monitoring dorms, private homes or apartments. "You get into privacy issues if you monitor people's homes," he said, "which is not an issue right now because I can't tell you anything about the cars we're monitoring. If we wanted to get information from a dorm full of college students, though, we could put one in the parking lot, if we had permission." For now, sensors are typically hung in mall parking lots, on the front of retail outlets, car lots or fast-food joints.

Jay Stanley, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project, said that as the technology is being used now, his concerns over any invasion of privacy are low. "The invasion comes when combined with something like scanning a license plate or being able to identify if you are the one listening to that right-wing radio show or that show about alcoholism," Stanley said.

Among the clients testing out MobilTrak so far: lots of car dealerships, radio giants Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting and, in a trial mode, Home Depot. (MTV's parent company, Viacom, also owns Infinity.)

Meanwhile, there's a whole different kind of radio eavesdropping going on in Atlanta these days. A company called Navigauge has gone a step further than MobilTrak in the race to make radio programming more of a science. The panel members recruited by Navigauge agree to have "black box"-like devices placed in their cars for three years for minimum compensation ($50). The boxes allow the company to track where they are, what they listen to, how often, how loud and for how long and even how fast they drive. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to Navigauge headquarters, requiring the driver to do nothing more than agree to share their preferences with Navigauge's clients.

"Once the device goes in, it's out of sight, out of mind," said Drew Simpson, senior vice president of media at Navigauge. "We can see how the customer consumes media and tell stations much more quickly about the burn rate on certain songs and take the guesswork out of programming."

Another incentive for the company's panel members is that the black box acts like a tracking device, helping to locate their car should it get stolen — which has already happened at least once. That same technology — which uses Global Positioning System software — allows Navigauge to "geocode" billboards with sensors so that they can track when and how often members pass billboards. Those companies then instantly know how many people are seeing their ads, and even how fast they're typically driving by, which might inspire them to beef up or slim down the wording on the ad.

Navigauge currently has 500 panel members in Atlanta and plans to launch in Houston by this summer, doubling the amount of bugged cars on the road.

"We will allow more money to go into radio and program directors to make more scientific decisions on content," said Simpson, who predicted that the changes might inspire some stations to cut back on the amount of ads they program each hour, or, in more extreme cases, switch the programming entirely.

"They might be able to say, 'This Avril Lavigne song played well, but the third cut off the CD might burn out faster.' Or we could tell McDonald's the media profile of the people coming through the drive-thru versus the ones who park and walk in."