The Ad Industry Must Stand Up for the Collection of Mobile Data

In the Debate Over Surveillance, We Must Advocate Access for Targeting Purposes

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Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance of the mobile activity of millions of Americans has sparked a national debate over the volume of information the authorities may access and raised awareness of the amount of information generated by mobile devices and stored by mobile network providers. It's not just phone calls and text messages, but user location, web browsing information and buying habits -- all of which just happen to be juicy information for marketers.

It's unclear how much interest the National Security Agency's PRISM data-collection program has in this particular data, but in advertising we would all agree that people's actions in the physical world, as revealed by mobile use, are a much better representation of who they are than their actions in the digital world, as shown by web browsing.

Consumers are resistant to sharing any of this data, however. We've learned, in the age of targeted advertising, that consumers get annoyed when they receive unsolicited, irrelevant content, but they're hesitant to reveal personal details about themselves that would let advertisers send more user-friendly material. This was where cookies had previously been useful. That information was limited to web browsing history, as recorded by bits of software left on users' browsers by sites they had visited. But people are increasingly mistrustful of even this basic tracking technology.

To a certain extent, tech companies are listening to these concerns: In recent months, Microsoft and Mozilla have introduced default do-not-track settings in their browser updates. Mozilla just announced a partnership with Stanford University to create a Cookie Clearinghouse, which will provide privacy rankings for browser cookies and develop "allow" and "block" lists.

Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has sharply criticized the Clearinghouse as a "kangaroo cookie court, an arbitrary group determining who can do business with whom." The IAB worries that this system will make it "punishingly difficult" for thousands of small publishers and retailers to get access to information from third-party cookies that they need to target engaged consumers. In Rothenberg's opinion, without cookies, online targeting is seriously challenged.

Still, many in the advertising industry feel that cookies, with their limited usefulness as a consumer-targeting tool, are dying -- if they're not already dead. That's why there's been an upswing in the use of technology like fingerprinting, which can capture unique information about Internet users, but can't extend much beyond someone's time zone, operating system and hardware.

This leaves us with the immense amount of valuable information routinely collected from smartphone use. It's easy enough to obtain: after informing its customers that it would do so in 2011, Verizon Wireless has begun to sell certain pieces of this data. AT&T will soon be doing the same. It just changed its privacy policy to "use local geography as a factor in delivering … ads to the people who might find them most useful." It is important to note that both of these developments will enable the providers to sell information about classes of users, but not the user-specific sort of information that the National Security Agency reportedly has been collecting.

With the growth of programmatic platforms serving mobile and digital out-of-home media, insights gathered from mobile data can be applied in an efficient and scalable way as never before. This puts our industry in a difficult position in the debate over government surveillance of mobile data; we must be sensitive to privacy worries, but also need this data to optimize targeting of our campaigns and best provide value to marketers.

Given the intensely personal nature of the smart phone, campaigns leveraging mobile data have to target clusters instead of individuals. For example, mobile data could be used to target women with children by placing content in malls or gyms that over-index in this audience, or by creating micro-fences targeting groups of users on mobile phones that have many users from that audience. Over the course of the day, mobile data helps us learn where the target audience is and when. Names, or other personally identifiable information, are never shared.

The targeting made possible through this newly available data set is often far more accurate than cookie-based targeting. Its collection and aggregation can be used for good and honest business purposes, not just for keeping tabs on the general populace. The advertising industry needs to highlight this point and make sure consumers understand this, so that in the political debate over surveillance policy, mobile data doesn't go the way of the cookie.

Jeremy Ozen is co-founder at Vistar Media.

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