Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Advertisers More Savvy at Matching Up Users' History on Multiple Digital Devices

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Advertisers More Savvy at Matching Up Users' History on Multiple Digital Devices

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO -- Once, only hairdressers and bartenders knew people's secrets.

Now, smartphones know everything -- where people go, what they search for, what they buy, what they do for fun and when they go to bed. That is why advertisers, and tech companies like Google and Facebook, are finding new, sophisticated ways to track people on their phones and reach them with individualized, hypertargeted ads. And they are doing it without cookies, those tiny bits of code that follow users around the Internet, because cookies don't work on mobile devices.

Privacy advocates fear that consumers do not realize just how much of their private information is on their phones and how much is made vulnerable simply by downloading and using apps, searching the mobile Web or even just going about daily life with a phone in your pocket. And this new focus on tracking users through their devices and online habits comes against the backdrop of a spirited public debate on privacy and government surveillance.

On Wednesday, the National Security Agency confirmed it had collected data from cell phone towers in 2010 and 2011 to locate Americans' cell phones, though it said it never used the information.

"People don't understand tracking, whether it's on the browser or mobile device, and don't have any visibility into the practices going on," said Jennifer King, who studies privacy at the University of California, Berkeley and has advised the Federal Trade Commission on mobile tracking. "Even as a tech professional, it's often hard to disentangle what's happening."

Drawbridge is one of several startups that has figured out how to follow people without cookies, and to determine that a cell phone, work computer, home computer and tablet belong to the same person, even if the devices are in no way connected. Before, logging onto a new device presented advertisers with a clean slate.

"We're observing your behaviors and connecting your profile to mobile devices," said Eric Rosenblum, chief operating officer at Drawbridge. But don't call it tracking.

"Tracking is a dirty word," he said.

Drawbridge, founded by a former Google data scientist, says it has matched 1.5 billion devices this way, allowing it to deliver mobile ads based on websites the person has visited on a computer. If you research a Hawaiian vacation on your work desktop, you could see a Hawaii ad that night on your personal cell phone.

For advertisers, intimate knowledge of users has long been the promise of mobile phones. But only now are numerous mobile advertising services that most people have never heard of -- like Drawbridge, Flurry, Velti and SessionM -- exploiting that knowledge, largely based on monitoring the apps we use and the places we go. This makes it ever harder for mobile users to escape the gaze of private companies, whether insurance firms or shoemakers. …

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