The Battle to Track Your Cellphone

HTC-Incredible-S-SmartphoneWe all know that advertising is what drives the Internet today. There is a sophisticated system in place to track desktop users through cookies and numerous other techniques that let companies amass information on who you are and how you use the internet. But these same tracking tools are largely not available for cellphones. The slimmed down operating systems for cell phones have created an environment that is very unfriendly to cookies and the other kinds of tools that are used to track desktop users.

Tracking and profiling customers is now key to advertisers. They are only willing to spend big bucks on web advertising if they can send directed ads to consumers. I live in Florida and I’ve barely been able to visit any web site in the last month where I didn’t get an ad about the Florida governor’s race. The tracking tools for web sites are good enough to know where I live and then give me ads appropriate to where I live and to my interests. The rest of the year my ads are directed more to me specifically and I get very different ads on my computer compared to what my wife gets.

You can’t blame the advertisers. The real value in web advertising is through the ability to direct ads that try to match the advertisement and the offers made to the person receiving the offer. They don’t want to try to sell a sports product to a non-sports fan or a cooking application to someone who has no interest in food. And so directed advertising is helping them to narrow the target audience to improve their chance of success. One of the main drivers behind developing big data techniques is to hone the ability to track people over time, across multiple devices and multiple web sites to form profiles on each of us.

Advertisers are desperate to be able to direct ads as accurately on cellphones as they do on desktops. This is incredibly important to advertisers because ad space on cellphones is so much more limited, and thus more valuable. On a cellphone you can’t do popups or even insert ads in any meaningful way onto the smaller screens when a cellular customers looks at a cellular version of a website. When I visit the typical commercial website on my laptop probably 20% or more of each page has been made available for the insertion of ads. And there is a huge industry that has sprung up to fill the space on those millions of web pages.

Recently both Verizon and AT&T have been experimenting with a new way to track wireless users. They have been inserting tracking numbers into the headers that identify individual cellphones. Apparently these headers have been very successful for advertisers and several of them have announced that they have had great success tracking phones through these identifying headers.

Several years ago the manufacturers of smartphones tried building an identifying number into each cellphone they made. But there was a huge outcry from the public and from privacy critics and these device IDs were either eliminated or somehow encoded and protected so that outsiders could not use them to identify an individual cellphone.

But the cellphone companies are desperate to find something that will enhance advertising revenues and so they now are putting identification in the headers. This means that every time that a cellphone visits any website, when that web site scans who is making a request they can gather these identifying numbers.

Verizon and AT&T say that these numbers are not for advertising and that they regularly rotate the numbers, in the same manner that they are supposed to change IP addresses for landline Internet connections. But we know in practice that in this age when people no longer log off the Internet that homes sometimes maintain the same IP address for months at a time. The wireless carriers don’t say how often the identifying headers are changed at a given cellphone.

AT&T notified customers in 2013 that it would be inserting these identifiers as part of a ‘test’ of future advertising products, and they offered their customers the ability to opt out of the program. But it’s been reported by those who opted out (and who are savvy enough to track this sort of thing) that they are being given these tracking numbers today and that there is apparently no way to elect out of the process.

The real proof that the tracking numbers are effective is the buzz that this has created in the wireless advertising world. Numerous advertising firms are now touting advertising programs that can help their clients track cellular customers in ways similar to desktop users.

Interestingly, Google has proposed a new Internet protocol they are calling SPDY that would eliminate and prevent these kinds of advertising headers. However, since Google makes the vast majority of their revenue from directed advertising these days, one has to think that this just means that they have found a different way to achieve the same results and want to eliminate one of the tools of their competitors.

Let’s face it. Our cellphones and other devices are amazing tools that bring us all a lot of benefits. But with those benefits it is just assumed that the carriers and advertisers are going to find a way to track us. It seems that if we want the benefits these devices bring us that the cost is our privacy.

One thought on “The Battle to Track Your Cellphone

  1. Dear Doug:
    Hope all is well for you (and yours) in Florida…
    As for the tracking problem with cell phones… the solutions are easy — (1) Shut it off when not in use. It will track you when it is on, but that will obviously be your choice, and the tracking mechanism will be thwarted, incomplete and inconclusive; (2) Most of the Internet ads have a little comment/reply tab at the top… if you think the ads are too much or too big or inappropriate, TELL THEM SO!! If we hit the ‘bad ad’ button enough times, then the ads will lessen… or be wholly generic in nature.
    I took a similar tack with junk mail, especially the junk mail with a business reply envelope. You see, businesses pay big bucks for business reply mailers that they receive back, so if you return these envelopes with a note that says, “Please take me off your list”, and then cram in the billing stuffers and canceled envelopes from your other bills and junk mail — making these business reply envelopes as heavy as college linebackers — these businesses get the message right quick!! (Besides, giving these marketers the billing stuffers and canceled envelopes helps raise money for USPS, and we all know that USPS needs the money!) You are performing a public service!!
    If we all just sit back, and take the spew and garbage from the marketers, and blindly put up with their idiocy and invasions of our privacy — all in the name of corporate greed — we have no one to blame but ourselves!!
    Glad I could help!!


Leave a Reply