The Often Misunderstood Mobile User Privacy Landscape

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Written by Noelia Amoedo, CEO of Mediasmart

There’s been a surprising degree of misunderstanding about privacy and tracking of users on mobile recently, from advertisers and consumers alike.

A recent MMA panel event I was participating in, saw many of the agencies and advertisers present voicing the opinion that you can’t track user behaviour and preferences on mobile to the same extent as on desktop. There were also many of those present expressing legal concerns over privacy on mobile through the use of location data.

Many believe tracking on mobile is not possible due to the absence of cookies, but let’s be clear on this. With mobile, users are actually tracked using cookies in mobile web form (although cookies are used in a more restrictive way on mobile), and through Mobile Device Identifiers. Most user engagement actually comes from apps and these native IDs are as accurate, if not more, than their cookie web equivalent. What happens is that often, desktop-first solutions fail to properly cover the in-app environment, which is a very different scenario from mobile tracking not being possible.

Historically, privacy concerns have revolved around the unique identifiers which can be used to identify individual mobile devices, but these have evolved significantly over time. Previously MAC address, IMEA and Android ID or UDID were used as device IDs. Concerns with their use was widespread, as they were permanent IDs that did not offer users the choice of whether they were tracked or not.

This is no longer the case with the new advertising IDs from Microsoft, Apple and Google – which satisfy both growing consumer privacy concerns and the requirements of advertisers to be able to track their advertising more precisely.

These now give users even more control over their privacy, allowing them initially to decide whether or not to be tracked through these IDs in their phone settings, in a similar way to erasing cookies in your browser on your computer – but easier. Whereas cookies need to be removed for each browser and through a process that requires multiple non obvious steps, in the app world users have access to just one setting that prevents tracking for all apps with a single one button click.

On this basis there should be no more concern over using Advertising IDs than there are about using cookies. Despite this, concerns will still remain over location information however, and to a similar degree, such concerns are also misplaced.

First of all, it is important to clarify that using the location of a user to serve a campaign can clearly be considered advertising in context, and location as “contextual” information should not raise any concerns around privacy.

The use of location info should only be a concern when such location is a) directly stored with a user profile, even if that user is not identified by personal information and b) stored in ‘exact form’. In this case algorithms could, in theory, be used to determine where a user lives based on their behavioral patterns, and this information could of course be used to identify that individual. Guidelines such as those set down by the NAI (Network Advertising Initiative) refer to the correct use of location in advertising involving locating down to two decimal points, rather than storing exact user locations to be used as part of a specific user profile. Any advertiser that wants to put any privacy concerns at ease, should demand his providers are following such guidelines if they store user location history, but they should not simply dismiss the use of location information over legal concerns.

Brands and advertisers obviously understand the negative impact from intrusive marketing, and most are keen to ensure that privacy is respected. The Digital Advertising Alliance recently enforced its Principles in the Mobile Environment (DAA Mobile Guidance) for instance, which includes new guidance specific to mobile, such as across-app data, precise location data and personal directory data.

The ultimate advertising goal, of course, is to ensure users receive the kind of ads that are directly relevant to them, at the location and time they’ll be most receptive. This will mean optimising campaigns remains central to the mobile privacy and tracking debate. Using the right tools and technologies will also help provide mobile ads which offer value and make users more likely to exercise their right to accept them.

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