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New Ad Technology Begs Question: Is Big Brother Selling You Out?

(CBS) -- Did you know while you're driving down the highway advertisers may be tracking you? Does this sound a little Big Brother-ish?

CBS 2's Dorothy Tucker shows you how it involves billboards, cameras and your cell phone.

With today's billboards, you can literally be a target on the road.

"The camera is very, very small," said Jeff Tan, vice president of strategy at Posterscope USA.

He's talking about a camera that was on a billboard recently along I-88. Its mission was to snap pictures of a few specific cars, part of an advertising campaign for Chevy Malibu.

Here's how it works: When the camera hones in on a Nissan Altima, for example, the advertising message targets the driver of that Nissan Altima and communicates that the Chevy Malibu has more safety features.

"I think it's a nice way of acknowledging the consumer's presence and acknowledging that they are unique individuals with unique tastes," Tan says.

Another outdoor advertising company, Clear Channel, is also paying special attention to the motorists who pass its billboards. It has 4,000 displays across the Chicago area. Data collected from cell phones lets an advertiser know when drivers pass the sign and if they were influenced by it.

Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, Chicago's technology epicenter, says this use of cell phone data will become more common.

"You think of it as a phone, we think of it as a digital tracker," he says. "We want to know that that consumer that drove by that billboard two hours later stopped and bought our product."

He says the technology has the potential save money and time.

But is there a bad side?

"Everybody who has a smart phone is carrying a miniature surveillance device," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Kent College of Law.

She questions whether information will be conveyed accurately when, for example, a motorist drives by a billboard with a liquor ad and then goes to a liquor store.

"I might be buying something else entirely," Andrews says.

Clear Channel says they abide by regulations protecting consumers' privacy. Tan of PosterScope USA makes the same argument.

"We are not saving or storing any pictures of cars or individuals – not at all," said Tan.

Clear Channel also says the data it gets does not include anyone's personal information.

So, how can you prevent being tracked, even if it's anonymous? The best way is to not only turn off location services, but your Bluetooth and Wifi as well.

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