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News & Features | Oct 15th, 2013

How Advertisers Track You on Your Smartphone

Jared Howe

Smart phoneYou may not know it, but your smartphone reveals a lot about you.

Simply by owning a smartphone and carrying it around, it reveals where you go every day, what you search for, what you buy, and even what time you wake up and go to bed.

This information is crucial to advertisers who want to know as much as they can about you. Up until now, advertisers have had no way to get this information, as cookies do not work on cell phones. But now advertisers have finally found a way to track what we do on our smartphones, and more ominously, they have found a way to link this information to what we do on other devices, such as our laptop computers and tablets.

Smartphone Use is Exploding

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 91% of people in the United States own cellphones, and many of these are smartphones, which allows users to access the Internet. Nearly two-thirds of smartphone users use their phones to surf the web, which has doubled since 2009. 21% of these smartphone users use their phone more than a computer to go online, and this will only increase in the future. We are using our computers less, and our smartphones more.

Advertisers are keenly aware of this trend. Smartphone advertising is the new frontier for advertisers, but up until now, many advertisers have had no way to access user data via a smartphone, so most advertising has been a shot in the dark.

On laptop and desktop devices, advertisers install cookies, little pieces of tracking software, in order to track what you do online. But cookies don’t work on smartphones, so advertisers have been at a loss at how to find out what you are doing.

How They Track You

But now, a few new startups have finally been able to track what you do on your smartphone. How do they do this? By accessing the location information on your phone and by accessing personal information gathered by any mobile apps you use. Then they use sophisticated algorithms to link what you do on your smartphone to what you do on your laptop and/or tablet. By doing this, these companies are able to give much more in-depth user profile information to advertisers.

Drawbridge and Flurry are two of the larger startups who are in the smartphone tracking business. They have been able to embed their tracking software in hundreds of thousands of mobile apps which track smartphone use for billions of people.

For example, if you use mobile apps for Facebook or Amazon on your smartphone, these companies are able to track what you search on or buy on your phone, and then link this information to what you do on your laptop or tablet.

Advertisers have been able to use this information they gather on smartphones to create detailed user profiles, such as stay at home moms who like to garden, or small business owners who like to read.

Most of us don’t know this is happening, or that mobile apps can access this personal information. While this has been a gain for advertisers, it has come at the cost of our privacy.

Be Careful of Those Mobile Apps

Always be aware that you can and probably are being tracked whenever you download and use a mobile app on your smartphone. State and Federal law does not prohibit this, and most states to not even require mobile app developers to post a privacy policy which explains what they do with user data.

In other words, assume whatever you do on your smartphone, including where you go and what you access, is being tracked and stored by advertisers. Better yet, perhaps it’s time to delete those mobile apps if you don’t want advertisers to know this information.


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