A December 18th Wall Street Journal article titled “Your Apps are Watching You” discusses a recent test that showed how often personal information is transmitted to ad companies without user knowledge.
“These phones don’t keep secrets,” say authors Scott Thurm and Yukari Iwatani Kane , “They are sharing this personal data widely and regularly.”
The Wall Street Journal investigation involved an examination of 101 popular smartphone “apps” that covered a variety of games and other software applications for both iPhone and Android phones. Results showed that 56 applications transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to external companies without any user knowledge or consent. 47 apps transmitted the phone’s location, while 5 sent age, gender and personal details.
Why are many apps free?
I always wondered what the motivation was to offer so many free apps to smartphone users. Is it just to create something that people like and want to use? Perhaps so, but there is another very good reason why developers and ad companies could benefit from customers installing apps and transmitting information: demographic data.
I’m sure someone in the advertising industry would read that and think, “Well, duh.” But as I read the Wall Street Journal article about apps watching you and how prevalent data transmission is, it reminded me of a guy I knew in college who had a Nielson box on his cable television receiver. He was paid to allow Nielson to collect data about what he watched and when. The information was tied to his name, age, gender and location. Nielson could not only use the data for their ratings system to show what shows are the most popular, but it became a valuable tool for advertisers to know what shows certain demographics are watching in order to more custom-tailor the ads to that audience.
If you’ve ever compared commercials that play on TNT on Thursday night when NBA basketball is on to those that air during late morning network soap operas, you’ll see the method in action.
By offering free apps that are able to transmit data about the application user and where they are, advertisers are getting a clear picture of where to advertise and who is listening, and what they are watching and listening to.
A Google advertiser’s dream: lots of user information.
Think what is happening on a grander scale with your Google ID: I sign up for a Gmail account in order to customize my Google news home page. I can check out using Google merchants with that same ID. If (and I say “if” with tongue-in-cheek) there is a cookie on my computer that transmits anonymous info about a 40-year-old female in Pagosa Springs, Colorado who reads Sci/Tech stories more than other news articles, that cookie is also loaded with data that sends information about the sites I visited and the purchases I made. Although the information carries no personal data such as name or phone number, an advertiser can narrow it down to the fact that a 40-year-old woman in Pagosa Springs reads Sci/Tech articles spends X amount of hours online and purchases these items from these companies.
My Android smartphone conveniently uses my Gmail account to backup all of my contacts, which comes in handy if I lose my phone, get a new one, or need to do a full software update. Since the Wall Street Journal study shows that my GPS location, age, gender and personal details are transmitted by many applications, it is fairly certain that the information is being tied to my other browsing information and used for advertising purposes.
Is it spying, or helping?
Privacy advocates are concerned about this anonymous information being transferred, and for good cause. The Wall Street Journal article explains, “Among all apps tested, the most widely shared detail was the unique ID number assigned to every phone.” And according to Vishal Gurbuxani, co-founder of Mobclix Inc., an exchange for mobile advertisers, that unique ID number is effectively a “supercookie”, but with one big difference. A cookie on your home computer that tracks your internet habits and site visit information can be blocked or deleted, but the unique smartphone identifiers cannot easily be deleted.
“That’s how we track everything,” explains Meghan O’Holleran of Traffic Marketplace, an Internet ad network that is expanding into mobile apps. “We watch what apps you download, how frequently you use them, how much time you spend on them, how deep into the app you go.”
Although both Apple and Google, makers of the two most popular smartphones, iPhone and Android, both let advertisers target groups of users, the companies say they don’t track individuals based on the way they use apps.
As a consumer, and knowing how the Nielson ratings were used to help gather demographic info for advertising, I have to say that I really don’t mind if my music tastes, YouTube video views, and site visits are tied to my age, location and gender if it means that advertisements are custom tailored to me. Online ads can be expensive to be simply thrown in a wide blanket, hoping that the right person sees it.
If I am an advertiser, I’d be much happier with the Facebook way of targeting viewers for ads. Facebook lets you choose exactly who sees your ad with criteria that includes location, gender, age and even hobbies and interests. If I’m selling a book aimed at women in their early 20′s who have an interest in horses, I can pay only for ads to display on the Facebook walls of users who meet that criteria. The fast-growing mobile advertising market is most likely using that same model.
As a consumer, I tend to want to read the ads on my Facebook wall because they are usually tailored to me and reflect something I am interested in. I first noticed this when I was new to Facebook and saw an ad for a women’s flyfishing school, followed by one for a new Stephen King book. Both were subjects that I had written about in my Facebook hobbies and interests section when I signed up. If an advertiser can custom tailor an ad for me, I’m more willing to look at what they have to offer.
But on the other hand, after reading through a database of the search queries that were released by AOL several years ago, several of which led to a searcher’s identity being found by simply by reading her search terms, maybe I should be worried about privacy. Where is the lline between offering a service that may be convenient, but can also put too much personal information out into the cyberworld for others to use? In the wrong hands, the information gathered could be used for something negative.
Click here to read the full Wall Street Journal article titled, “Your Apps Are Watching You”. (NOTE: you need to register as a user to view the article, but WSJ articles are worth registering to read. They are very well-written and based on fact and good journalism, not assumption and personal perspectives.)
Comments? Input? I’d love to hear them!