August 12, 2013    /    by

Tracking by Advertisers Depends on Trust

How much tracking by advertisers is ok? The answer relies on trust...

Are you being tracked?

An intriguing article written by Mike Elgan at Computerworld.com recently asked the question: What’s wrong with being tracked by advertisers?

The article’s secondary headline reads: “Companies are getting more aggressive about using your phone to track you. So what?”

My simple answer is that it depends on who the advertiser is, what their motives are and whether I can trust them to act in my best interest or not.

Issue Background
After providing numerous examples of real-world ways that your location is being used to help send more relevant ads to us, Mr. Elgan ends his commentary with these thought-provoking words:

     "What's wrong with being tracked for the purpose of giving companies the ability to direct relevant advertising at you?

After all, the alternative to good ads (the ones promoting things you actually want to buy) isn't zero ads. The alternative is bad ads -- constant sales pitches for stuff you don't want. (Another name for unwanted advertising is spam.)

Don't get me wrong -- there are privacy considerations to be reckoned with. But isn't the best way forward to grapple with those issues while learning to accept highly relevant, location-based contextual advertising?"

There is little doubt that the majority of people enjoy the many benefits of providing data to mobile applications on their smartphones to get better results in various situations. This is especially true with getting directions with maps, etc. Parents can also track where their children really go with their smartphones when they leave home, and numerous social media apps can automatically add metadata on where that picture or video was taken.

However, Mike Elgin is asking a different question about advertisers and not helpful apps. I don’t doubt that the 61% of respondents in a recent YP survey said that they gave permission for mobile apps to access their current location, but did they say that they would happily give that data to advertisers who are building a database on where they typically go? Are they ok with merging multiple datasets (such as location, store buying habits and TV-watching patterns?) Those are very different questions.

Digging deeper: When does this tracking by advertisers become “Big Brother” – to you? When does it go too far? Who controls the data that they gather? Can you see your data on request? Can you delete it? Who else (what partners) can see your data (and use it)?

On the other hand, turning off the location functionality of the smartphone altogether seems too draconian to me, since you need to take the device out to make a call or surf the Internet. I tend to agree with the sentiment described in the Computerworld article regarding solutions such as OFF Pocket, which block all tracking by turning off all signals to the smartphones. I think many people want the app location functionality, without the tracking by advertisers.

Can I Trust the Advertiser or Not?

But I’d like to respond to Mike Elgin’s core question: What’s wrong (or what could go wrong) with being tracked by advertisers?

My answer is very simple: The advertiser may not have my best interest at heart.

Can I trust how my data will be used, both now and in the future? Is this technology being used for my overall benefit or just their company profit?

Make no mistake – advertisers want to know us much better so that they can apply the most sophisticated marketing that works. But… are they tempting me into buying something or doing something that violates my values? Whose standards are they using? What are they advocating? Are their actions really in my best interest? How do I know? Who decides? Can I change my mind and turn it off?

I suspect most advertisers just want to make a sale, whether I need an item (or the calories or the bill) or not. I also doubt if they care if someone is in financial difficulty and can’t afford to buy an item.

Bottom line: Are they using the data for good or for evil? (And who decides what is good and evil?) Even if I trust the current advertisers, will intentions change in the future? Will my data be sold (or hacked) down the road?

For example, could an alcoholic be tempted to head to the liquor store? How about a gambling addict lured towards a casino? Or, how about a person on a diet, who can’t seem to resist Twinkies, be offered a buy-one, get one free offer that is too hard to resist.

Can We Make a Deal?
Sadly, answers in this advertising space tend to be all or nothing. If I turn off all location services or context aware ads today, I am throwing the baby out with the bathwater. NO discounts for me. No 20% off coupons. No helpful tips when traveling.

Either tracking is on or off – for virtually everything. Advertisers who target us will no doubt be going slow at first and offer the most compelling context-based ads, but this will expand dramatically over time.

I must admit, I don’t like where this is heading in the long run. I feel like I am being led down the Primrose Path – but the alternative is not good either.
Are their alternatives that would make me feel safer? Yes - let me surf my values. Ask me what I want to see, and respect what I say by not sending me ads in categories that I specify. (Vendors could use eHarmony or other dating site technology to understand what my values are.)

Sure – use context. But make it so that I can (easily) opt out of a certain vendor’s tracking. Better yet, allow me to easily opt-in – by situation, topic and/or mobile app. Let me see and control my data.

From the public interest perspective, these are similar questions that are being asked about NSA and Edward Snowden regarding our Internet activity being tracked by our government to stop terrorism. They are also the questions being asked about sharing our medical data widely.

Finally, most of these questions are not new –even if the capabilities to track us are new. I describe various scenarios in chapters 9 &10 of my 2008 book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web.

Still, we are heading into a world with wearable computers with cameras and other data collection techniques are set to grow dramatically. We are heading towards the Dick Tracy watch.

And I think consumers want to maintain control of their own watch and what they see and don't see. But most of all, consumers only want to share tracking data with companies and people that they trust.