Over the past few weeks, a lot of fuss has been made over the disclosure of a mobile device’s unique identifier to third-parties. Special reports, doomsday headlines… the works. The short version of the story is this: each smartphone has a unique number that identifies it, app makers and third parties are beginning to use this number to build a profile of the phone (and its user), and people are upset about it. The information transmitted is used for a variety of things, one of which is advertising. But is this an assault on our privacy as many are claiming? Not the way I see it. This is the holy grail of advertising. Targeted advertising. And it is what those engaged in the industry have been trying to do for years — make personal connections. It’s not wrong and it’s not a bad thing. Read on to hear me out.
Who would have expected this? Just two weeks after The Wall Street Journal reported that Android and iOS might transmit user-data to third-party companies, several lawsuits, seeking class action status, have been filed in both California and Texas. The WSJ’s article details how marketers and advertising agencies are beginning to utilize a mobile phone’s unique device identifier (UDID) to build a profile of the device in question and, ultimately, the end-user. This UDID, which goes by different names depending on the phone’s manufacturer, is the equivalent of a mobile device’s fingerprint; it can not be changed or altered without great — perhaps even destructive — effort.
“The great thing about mobile is you can’t clear a UDID like you can a cookie,” said Meghan O’Holleran of Traffic Marketplace, an online ad network. “That’s how we track everything,” she continued. “We watch what apps you download, how frequently you use them, how much time you spend on them, how deep into the app you go.” The Wall Street Journal goes on to note that the data collected by Ms. O’Holleran’s company is “aggregated and not linked to an individual.”
The idea of tracking software being incorporated into popular mobile applications, stealthily tracking your every click and feeding that information to analytics agencies, is a bit unnerving to some. So it comes as no surprise that several
entrepreneurs users have filed lawsuits in response the practice. CNN is reporting that at least two such suits naming Apple, Inc. as the sole Defendant, have been filed in both Texas and California. The Plaintiffs are claiming that their iOS devices have been “hijacked” and are “capable of spying on their every mobile online move.” Both parties seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the hardship the ordeal has caused — the ordeal being the voluntary use of several popular applications that collect user data for a variety of reasons.
As you may have guessed, I’m not all that concerned with third parties, even advertisers, knowing the age, gender, UDID, and/or the general (or even specific) location of my device’s end-user (that’s me). To worry about such a thing just seems silly. So Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, knows that the dude using my mobile device is, um, a dude, was stuck on level 5-13 for six straight hours, and was in Newport, RI when this all occurred. So the game looked through my address book to see if there were contacts that were also playing Angry Birds with whom I could connect. I kind of like these features. Now the information collected from my device is passed on to an analytics company — like Flurry — that aggregates the data for Rovio and provides actionable usage statistics and intelligence. Rovio can use this information to improve its product, which would seem like a benefit to me, the player. Using the anonymized information does not bother me. Not even a little. And I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t bother you either. Heck, Flurry may even go one step further and use this information in its own reporting and assessment of the mobile industry or publish a report about it (which I may end up covering on BGR); still doesn’t trouble me all that much. Why should it? It’s an age, gender, and ever-changing location that is linked to a number that represents a mobile device.
A device needs a unique identifier. It aids developers and development, it allows for the tracking (by the OEM) of devices in the market, and, perhaps most importantly, it is there to be used by developers and, gasp, third-parties.
We know how the conspiracy theorists will play the scenario out in their heads. Applications slowly and methodically collect information about what your phone is doing, linking it to your phone’s identifier. If enough information is collected by enough apps, and fed to the same repository, a profile of the device’s end-user (you) can be created and… targeted for advertising? So what? If this means, as a guy in my late-twenties living in Massachusetts, I see ads for engagement rings from Newbury Street boutiques instead of adverts for Depends adult incontinence diapers, so be it. If I were overly concerned about strangers not knowing my age, gender, and location, I probably would avoid going out in public — since all three of these things are pretty easy to discern and there are plenty of people outside my home that I do not know. As a consolation to those still concerned: the people doing the profiling have to start from square-one roughly every two-years (or whenever you switch devices). This is something that should give even the craziest, tin-foil hat wearing, bunker-residing security gurus, something to smile about.
That’s my personal opinion; what’s yours? Are phone manufacturers violating your privacy by allowing third-parties to build a profile of who might be using your device? Is it the OEM’s responsibility to prevent this? Or is this the natural evolution of advertising in a more mobile world? Let us know what you think in the comments. And for those of you wondering: 27, male, Boston; MA, 9649e796e8b23900dc9629a18f2d47306430e62f.