AS LOCATION-AWARE ADVERTISING GOES MAINSTREAM—LIKE THAT JACK IN THE BOX AD THAT APPEARS WHENEVER YOU GET NEAR ONE, IN WHICHEVER APP YOU HAVE OPEN AT THE TIME—AND AS POPULAR APPS HARVEST YOUR LUCRATIVE LOCATION DATA, THE POTENTIAL FOR LEAKING OR EXPLOITING THIS DATA HAS NEVER BEEN HIGHER.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When the movie Minority Report was released back in 2007, audiences were thrilled to see the technological marvels that would come true for some future generation down the line. Funny thing is, though, just about everything shown in the movie has already come true, including the persistent mobile advertising that follows your every move. The every move of billions of people all being tracked and recorded by a personal device in their pocket…and it’s not even the mark of the beast yet. Imagine that.
It’s true that your smartphone’s location-tracking capabilities can be helpful, whether it’s alerting you to traffic or inclement weather. That utility is why so many of us are giving away a great deal more location data than we probably realize. Every time you say “yes” to an app that asks to know your location, you are also potentially authorizing that app to sell your data.
Marketers spent $16 billion on location-targeted ads served to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets in 2017. That’s 40% of all mobile ad spending, research firm BIA/Kelsey estimates, and it expects spending on these ads to double by 2021.
The data required to serve you any single ad may pass through many companies’ systems in milliseconds—from data broker to ad marketplace to an agency’s custom system. In part, this is just how online advertising works, where massive marketplaces hold ongoing high-speed auctions for ad space.
But the fragmentation also is due to a very real fear of the public backlash and legal liability that might occur if there were a breach. Imagine the Equifax breach, except instead of your Social Security number, it’s everywhere you’ve been, including your home, your workplace and your children’s schools.
The fix, at least for now, is that with most individual data vendors holding only parts of your data, your complete, identifiable profile is never all in one place. Giants like Google and Facebook , who do have all your data in one place, say they are diligent about throwing away or not gathering what they don’t need, and eliminating personally identifying information from the remainder.
YET AS THE INDUSTRY AND THE WAYS TO TRACK US EXPAND, THE POSSIBILITY THAT OUR WHEREABOUTS WILL BE EXPOSED MULTIPLIES.
If you’ve ever felt clever because an app on your phone asked to track your location and you said no, this should make you feel a little less smug: There are plenty of ways to track you without getting your permission. Some of the most intrusive are the easiest to implement.
Your telco knows where you are at all times, because it knows which cell towers your phone is near. In the U.S., how much data service-providers sell is up to them.
Another way you can be tracked without your knowing it is through any open Wi-Fi hot spot you might pass. If your phone’s Wi-Fi is on, you’re constantly broadcasting a unique MAC address and a history of past Wi-Fi connections. Retailers sometimes use these addresses to identify repeat customers, and they can also use them to track you as you go from one of their stores to another.
WeatherBug, one of the most popular weather apps for Android and iPhone, is owned by the location advertising company GroundTruth. It’s a natural fit: Weather apps need to know where you are and provide value in exchange for that information. But it also means that app is gathering data on your location any time the app is open—and even when it isn’t, if you agreed to always let it track your location. That data is resold to others.
This data is what enables marketers like Jack in the Box to push an advertiser’s message to potential customers near its restaurants. A typical engagement includes pushing location-based promotions or coupons through mobile ads, says Iwona Alter, Chief Marketing Officer of Jack in the Box.
Every month GroundTruth tracks 70 million people in the U.S. as they go to work in the morning, come home at night, surge in and out of public events, take vacations, you name it. source