It’s Not My Phone That’s Tracking Me After All

by Clara Jacob
June 26, 2019 • 2 minute read

After we published “My Phone Is Tracking Me and Why it Matters” we found the issue really struck a chord with our clients.

In the meantime, several co-workers came to me with their own tales of tracking and targeting.

Here’s my favorite. Account Specialist Brittany was telling Account Coordinator Alix about a Father’s Day gift she’d ordered for her husband.

They were socks custom-printed with photos of their (adorable) son. She showed them to Alix on her office laptop.

Four hours later, Alix was served an Instagram story ad on mobile for custom printed socks from the same company.

This was entirely consistent with my experiences. The phone was listening. And it delivered an ad to someone who wasn’t in the market for the product.

If you like reading about phones spying on people, head on over to Reddit, where you can find plenty of discussion on the topic.

It’s All Apple’s Fault, They Say

To follow up on the issue, I did a little research.

It wasn’t that hard because a lot of people are talking about it, and not just on obscure conspiracy-theorist sites. Fast Company, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have also noticed.

It turns out it’s our apps that are tracking us, not our phones. Two of the three articles blame Apple.

The thinking goes like this: Apple created the app ecosystem. By sharing their API, they made it easy to develop apps. And Apple established their App Store, where users can get apps—frequently for nothing—always for less than developers need to break even.

So when these impoverished developers are approached by a data marketing company that will pay for user information, it’s an easy decision to make, apparently. (After all, who among us wouldn’t sell ongoing access to deeply personal information on all of our current and future customers?)

Mark Wilson writing in Fast Company says, “Today it’s routine for developers to insert a bit of code into their software that sends user information directly to outside companies.”

Location Isn’t Everything

These articles (listed below, which I recommend reading), focus primarily on location data.

As you might expect, weather apps, local news apps, real estate apps and other location-based apps are the biggest culprits.

According to Wilson, an app could have as many as eight bits of code tracking the user’s location. And that’s just location—not your other personal information.

He writes, “The Wall Street Journal studied 70 iOS apps in February and found several that were delivering deeply private information, including heart rates and fertility data, to Facebook through an analytics tool in the social media company’s software developer kit.”

Of course, Facebook has repeatedly claimed that it doesn’t eavesdrop on users.

Sitting on the Privacy Fence

Apple, Facebook and other major web players say they’re working toward enhancing user privacy.

The GDPR has put teeth into email-based privacy with substantial penalties for violations. Additional regulations protecting privacy are inevitable.

But as long as people willingly offer up their information, it will be used. Data collected by digital assistants and ancestry testing services has been mined recently to solve crimes. We can probably expect the same of facial recognition data.

If this is starting to seem like an episode of Black Mirror, you’re correct. And by the time we’ve agreed upon privacy standards, there will be another data gathering technology to contend with.

The awkward kicker here is that as much as we abhor the invasion of privacy, as marketers we’d like to get our hands on this level of data ourselves.

So we’re sitting squarely on the fence—a pretty uncomfortable privacy fence—along with thousands of other companies. And we’re all hoping to land on an ethically acceptable middle ground.

 

Sources:

https://www.fastcompany.com/90352021/apple-created-the-privacy-dystopia-it-wants-to-save-you-from
https://www.wsj.com/articles/iphone-privacy-is-brokenand-apps-are-to-blame
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html

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