Location tracking on mobile: the new battlefield?

A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported on its readers’ top tech peeves for apps and gadgets in 2016 and I was not surprised to see one of my “favorites” included on this list: location tracking. It’s a valuable bit of information for advertisers so it’s not that surprising that apps like to track it. That said, the straightforward location tracking, tracked by accessing a phone’s GPS, is easier to block. It’s the less obvious methods that bother me. Take these three examples:

Intended to delight, but with geo-tagging turned off, this was more an annoyance.

Intended to delight, but with geo-tagging turned off, this was more an annoyance.

  1. Google’s new photo AI tool can determine the location of “almost any photo” without needing geo-tags. The technology is impressive and Google hasn’t yet said how and if it will be used. That said, Google already uses famous landmarks to “delight” users by creating automatic, location-based photo albums, even when users have turned off photo geo-tagging. This in itself is a bit creepy: users have told the app not to track location and yet it knows where photos were taken.
  2. Billboard tracking. Billboards were/are one of the last untracked advertising media. While it has been possible to estimate the number of people who would view a billboard, it wasn’t possible to know who had viewed it and if that impression had resulted in any conversions. Clear Channel is out to change that with a new service called Radar. “Clear Channel and its partners — AT&T Data Patterns, a unit of AT&T that collects location data from its subscribers; PlaceIQ, which uses location data collected from other apps to help determine consumer behavior; and Placed, which pays consumers for the right to track their movements and is able to link exposure to ads to in-store visits.” Clear Channel claims that “all data is anonymous and aggregated… meaning individual consumers cannot be identified.” Yet it is disconcerting, to say the least, to have a random exposure to a billboard in a public space be tracked and tied other behavior such as a purchase.
  3. Cross device tracking. This one may be the creepiest, and allows “ inaudible, high-frequency sounds to surreptitiously track a person’s online behavior across a range of devices, including phones, TVs, tablets, and computers.” Here’s how the Center for Democracy and Technology described SilverPush:  “When a user encounters a SilverPush advertiser on the web, the advertiser drops a cookie on the computer while also playing an ultrasonic audio through the use of the speakers on the computer or device. The inaudible code is recognized and received on the other smart device by the software development kit installed on it. SilverPush also embeds audio beacon signals into TV commercials which are picked up silently by an app installed on a [device] (unknown to the user). The audio beacon enables companies like SilverPush to know which ads the user saw, how long the user watched the ad before changing the channel, which kind of smart devices the individual uses, along with other information that adds to the profile of each user that is linked across devices.”

Of the three examples of intrusive tracking, above, it’s really the second and third that are egregious invasions of user’s privacy, where it is unlikely that any consent to this kind of tracking was given. In fact, it seems that the tracking technology is intentionally hidden in other apps. Given that government regulations lag behind technology in almost every other aspect, it is unlikely that any US agency will put a stop to these practices.

What might happen is that other companies might see the benefit of protecting users,  Kate Murphy in the New York Times brought up consumer frustration with Spam in the 1990s: “The fix came only when entities like Spamhaus started compiling lists of bad actors, based in part on what consumers marked as spam. Email providers then subscribed to those lists so they could block offenders. Perhaps mobile operators, wanting to get ahead in customer acquisition goals, will adopt the blocking technology. This is the war currently being played out in the mobile advertising space, where companies like Shine provide ad-blocking software directly to mobile providers and companies without a stake in the mobile advertising space, such as Apple, have allowed ad blocking apps on their devices. In fact, a recent study showed that a fifth of adults in the UK block ads and almost 50% of 18-24 year olds do so.

Says Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next: “By installing ad blockers, consumers are telling us very clearly they don’t want to be tracked across the web. That’s going to be uncomfortable for a lot of advertising technology companies out there who have been enjoying what has been the Wild West.” And that is the question: will users understand the level of data collected about them? Will they consider it invasive? Will new startups provide tools to fight the new ad tech, and if so, how will those tools be adopted? Will app stores develop new tools to both detect trackers and notify users about them before they download and install and app?

It may be that the FTC will catch up to new tracking technology. “Last year, the agency settled charges against Nomi Technologies, a retail-tracking company that uses signals from shoppers’ mobile phones to track their movements through stores. The agency claimed that the company had misled consumers about their opt-out options.” It has also heard comments about cross-device tracking. It will be interesting what tracking techniques, if any, the FTC will ban and what new technology will be developed to get around those restrictions. Right now, it seems, it’s mobile users are in the cross-hairs.

What billboards did I see?

What billboards did I see?

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