Cross-Device Tracking? The FTC Wants to Know More

Agency to Hold Workshop in November, Why Marketers Should Pay Attention

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FTC headquarters in Washington, D.C.
FTC headquarters in Washington, D.C. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Marketers have become obsessed with connecting consumer profiles from the web to their phones to their TVs and beyond, and data services and tech firms are scrambling to make that a reality. Cross-device tracking is big and the Federal Trade Commission is watching.

The commission announced yesterday it will hold a workshop dedicated to the subject in November at its Washington offices. On the agenda: discussions on how cross-device tracking works, the types of data companies can glean from such technologies, benefits and privacy risks to consumers, and whether industry self-regulation covers this rapidly-evolving area appropriately.

The FTC's workshop seeks to address a number of questions about the potential benefits to consumers of effective cross-device tracking, as well as to examine the potential privacy and security risks.

OK, so the FTC is going to hold another one of its all-day talking-head sessions. We can expect the typical speakers and attendees: privacy wonks who will expound on the potential threats to consumer privacy and industry representatives stressing the importance of protecting data privacy and security. A good drinking game for reporters watching the stream would involve quaffing a frothy beverage every time a CEO or privacy chief employs the terms "anonymized" or "no-PII."

It's easy to be cynical about watching this especially bland government sausage being made. But when the FTC says it will hold a workshop on a subject that happens to be all the rage for marketers, industry should pay attention. The agency, as it did after its workshop on the Internet of Things, most likely will publish a report about cross-device tracking. There's a chance that report will call on Congress to establish some sort of security or privacy protections associated with cross-device tracking practices.

Senators with special interest in privacy matters -- think Democrats such as Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts or Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota -- could piggyback on the issue, perhaps pushing for a hearing on the matter or proposing legislation calling for restrictions on cross-device tracking practices.

The process is slow and dry but tech providers and marketers aiming to connect consumers wherever they touch a digital device might want to mark Nov. 16, 2015 on their calendars. The FTC is seeking public comment on the subject from now until Oct. 16.

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