Tracking You Wherever You Go – Your Mobile Exposes You

social media privacy image

Even in a crowd you can be tracked. Change crowds? It won’t work anymore.

Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.  The days of hiding yourself from brands and companies by switching devices seems to be behind us.  Either you are moving solely to mobile for your access to the outside world, or new technologies are being developed to track you across different platforms.  In either case, prepare to be tracked.  I hope the companies doing this are putting the user first because there is great power there to them.  With great power comes great responsibility, right?

In a weekend post on the Bits blog at the NY Times, the issue of tracking you across multiple platforms is discussed.  These new technologies drop the use of cookies and find that they are able to do more things.  With multiple devices we had the ability to avoid our behavior on one device being observed by applications and websites on another.  It used to be that you could log into a new device and start with a clean slate, right?  New technologies are making that notion obsolete.

Raise the Drawbridge on Drawbridge

Drawbridge is a start-up focused on providing companies data on their consumers across differing platforms.  Drawbridge uses proprietary technology to identify a single user across multiple differing devices without using personally identifiable information (PII).  Pretty amazing stuff.  They even published a whitepaper on it.  I don’t know who something could be confidential after you publish it on your publicly accessible website, but it is so marked.

According to the Bits article, Drawbridge has matched 1.5 million devices.  What this means to you is that when you are planning for your trip to kiss the Blarney stone on your home desktop that you may very well be served up ads for other Irish tourist hot spots on your work mobile (if you still have one).

What does this mean to us users?  In one case you can look forward to ads for a product you just bought on all your internet connected devices.  In another case if marketers aren’t collecting PII what do they have to tell us and what notice are we getting as users.

Troubling Trends

One of the enablers behind this (though Drawbridge isn’t taking advantage of this) are the platforms themselves, who are making it easier to collect data.  Google is considering implementing AdID as a way you can track online activityApple forced mobile developers to ditch the use of the Unique Device Identifier (UDID) in favor of their ID for Advertising (IDFA).  In the latter case this was a realization that the UDID was tracking the user themselves.  However, the practical effect is the ability to track an individual user across multiple iOS devices.  Is the Google AdID the same thing?  I think it definitely could be.

These technologies track our online behavior and use it to serve up highly contextualized marketing to us.  When marketing is so highly contextualized it no longer feels like marketing, it just feels like content.  Our normal defenses against such messaging break down.  When it feels like content, we consume it like content, and tend to believe it more than just a marketing message.  We don’t get a disclaimer about the potential side effects, or that past performance doesn’t predict future outcomes.  While I think that some users get duped by traditional marketing, I think the potential is there to be even more dupe-ey in the future.

Before you conclude that this type of tracking is as regulated as the Wild West of the 1800’s, please go spend some time on the FTC website.  The FTC regulates activity in this area and while some caution that the legislation and regulation in this area doesn’t go far enough, ignore them at your peril.

Creepy is just around the corner

As a user, this type of technology does cross my creepy line.  Where is my notice when I am served things that are based on this tracking?  What control do I have?  Where is my value exchange?  Don’t call this tracking in front of the Drawbridge CEO.  Why?  “Tracking is a dirty word,” he was quoted as saying.  Nice public relations spin, right.  If you are looking at an animal that can fly, has webbed feet, a big beak, feathers, is white and sits quite comfortably on the water, you are looking at a duck.  Calling it an elephant doesn’t make it not a duck.  I’m sorry.  This is tracking.

I don’t know the answer that solves this problem for me.  I would like to have some sort of link or modal that pops up and tells me why I should want the collected works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Unintended consequences

When Robert Oppenheimer saw the awesome power of the atomic bomb for the first time he exclaimed, “it worked,” he had no idea of all the uses of this new technology.  I think we have an interesting and similar problem with these types of technology.  I don’t know if Drawbridge fully appreciates the ways that lenders and insurers could use this technology.  What happens when personal information that is validly collected is combined with non-personal information?  Does the non-personal information become protected?

Rise above the minimum, folks

Your users deserve better than for you to hide behind the minimalist regulations in this space.  The collection and sharing of data by third parties is a bit of a regulatory null.  App development is a complex mess.  What third party code is contained within your app?  Are you serving content that has any tracking technology embedded in it?  Here is where embedding a privacy-sensitive culture in your development shop will pay great dividends.  Not because you will save money, but because you can show your users that you are doing the right thing.  That major privacy crises are avoided before they start.  Your users deserve it.  Hopefully you are one of your users as well so what do you want, and how do you feel when your creepy line is crossed.

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