While some are nervous about the Big Brotherish nature of having a TV that watches back, Invidi says the process is anonymous -- viewing patterns are not matched to addresses. Still, privacy watchdogs are wary. "It does tip my creepy meter," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research center. But Rotenberg concedes that technology to make consumer profiling anonymous on the Net and through digital cable has grown fast.
GOOD GUESSER This is how the system works: Invidi's software allows the cable company to constantly and anonymously monitor viewers and their channel surfing to build a database of digital profiles. It takes about 30 hours to detect the makeup of a household -- say, frat house, vs. nuclear family -- and store it, and about 25 clicks of the remote to tell who's clicking. Based on that information, the cable box determines if the viewer is a man, woman, teen -- or if they're, say, a likely pet owner. Invidi then adds in income assumptions gleaned from each viewer's Zip Code. The cable boxes digitally "vote" for which ad gets downloaded and triggers the same ads to all the matching profiles in the cable system. Invidi says its tests show the system predicts gender correctly about 95% of the time. Age plus gender accuracy is about 75% accurate. Not perfect, but that's about six times more accurate than current targeting, notes Tim Hanlon, vice-president/director for emerging contacts at Starcom MediaVest Group who has seen the system demonstrated.