Less Privacy on the Go

According to eMarketer, U.S. advertising spend on mobile platforms will reach $7.65 billion in 2013, nearly doubling its 2012 size of $4.36 billion. Smartphones, of course, store all kinds of personal information, ranging from deliberate storage of information like contacts to less intentional storage of information like products purchased and topics searched. However, unlike desktop computers, mobile devices cannot always rely on cookies to assess a user’s behavior. Mobile apps, for example, do not hold cookies. We can thus infer that much of the $7.65 billion spent on mobile advertising has a lot of room left for improvement when it comes to targeting end-users, and thus also significant potential for market growth. Smarter technology to track users’ tastes on mobile phones would likely be worth big bucks in the online retail world.

Drawbridge is one start-up making inroads in this space. As discussed in a recent NYTimes article, “Selling Secrets of Phone Users to Advertisers” (5 Oct. 2013), one of Drawbridge’s main goals is to connect a user across multiple devices. Since cookies gleaned from desktop browsing can reveal highly coveted information to merchants, consider how valuable it would be for a merchant to also know which mobile devices are connected to that desktop. If I search for “Best restaurants in Cambridge, MA” on my desktop, Drawbridge’s technology might allow advertisers from Grafton Street to display a message on my smartphone shortly thereafter because it would know which smartphone was mine.

This type of behavioral tracking and connecting, I am sure, is just the beginning of companies looking to piece together and profit from all of our online usage. Even if current privacy laws allow companies like Drawbridge to collect and share information, where are the users’ rights? The onset of mobile technology has been rapid and convenient for millions of users, but any relevant education of long-term implications has been heavily ignored, if not entirely absent. Is the challenge to make users more aware of the types of information they are making public and profitable for third parties? Or are the conveniences offered so great that users do not really care about the tradeoff? I consider myself a fairly educated consumer when it comes to privacy laws, but any fears I have of creating an entire cyber footprint of my life are outweighed by the benefits that come with using technologies like social media and online shopping.

As we continue to become a world that is less private, my biggest concern is that the monetary rewards of this alleged transparency will fall into the hands of only a few. What if, instead, the mobile revolution could lead to a new era of self-empowerment for users? What if users could sell their buying behavior and personal information directly to interested parties? Though the cost implications would undoubtedly be higher, the quality of the information would inevitably be much richer and more accurate, likely leading to a higher lifetime customer value.


1 Comment

  1. Wojtek Walniczek

    Google has recently changed its bidding policy disallowing separate bidding on keywords on various devices to eventually level off prices of keywords on various devices (today same keywords are worth less on smartphones or tablets). In doing so it’s planning to take advantage of the trend of growing importance of mobile platforms that you described. With such giant players expanding their presence in mobile advertising (and undoubtedly mobile data collection) I am also getting worried about my privacy more and more. Having all the information about me (from e-mail, to search results, to location through my Android phone) Google can rip massive benefits both monetary and non-monetary. Although I am getting some benefits as well (nominally free services, higher productivity, etc.) but it seems that split of those benefits is uneven and skewed towards corporations.
    I find your idea of selling our own buying behavior and personal data directly to interested parties very appealing (the fact that today I don’t have control over my online activity data and I cannot “unsubscribe” from sharing my information with anybody is quite sickening). It creates a couple of practical issues (how will we structure the information about our own buying behavior? How will we split the benefits between us and platforms that allow for aggregation? Etc.) and some conflicts of interest (will I temporarily and artificially change my behavior to realize higher price for it?) but it is definitely worth exploring. Will those be self-managed consumer platforms or co-operations with existing platforms? Can we already push our providers through consumer action to share monetary benefits with us? Or are they too powerful and we’re too fragmented to even start discussing? I think those questions might be very important in the world where online consumers become more and more aware of their rights and power.