From location monitoring to data scraping, smartphones have become the new gateway to accumulating volumes of valuable customer information. However, increasing regulatory scrutiny is pressuring companies to be more transparent about collecting and using this data.
Mobile tracking context
Few people know how closely their smartphone activity is being tracked. According to Senior Fellow at Wharton Customer Analytics, Elea Feit, it has become commonplace for companies to collect data on all customer interactions and activities. For example, a company can track all the emails it sends its customers and whether the customer opened the email or its links. A store can keep tabs on visits to its site and any purchases made. Almost every interaction a user has through apps and websites is information recorded and assigned to the user. This growing online activity and behavior database is then sold to the highest bidder, e.g., a government agency, a marketing firm, or a people search service.
A website or web service’s cookies or files on devices are the most popular technique for tracking users. The convenience offered by these trackers is that users don’t have to re-enter their passwords when returning to the website because they are recognized. However, the placement of cookies informs social media platforms like Facebook on how users interact with the site and which websites they visit while logged in. For example, a site’s browser would send the cookie to Facebook if someone clicked the Facebook Like button on an online blog. This method enables social networks and other businesses to know what users visit online and better understand their interests to acquire improved knowledge and provide more relevant advertisements.
In the late 2010s, consumers began raising concerns about businesses’ abusive practice of collecting and selling data behind their customer’s backs. This scrutiny led Apple to launch the App Tracking Transparency feature with its iOS 14.5. Users receive more privacy alerts as they use their apps, each requesting permission to monitor their activity across different businesses’ apps and websites. A tracking menu will appear in the privacy settings for every app requesting permission to track. Users can toggle tracking on and off whenever they want, individually or across all apps. Denying tracking means the app can no longer share data with third parties like brokers and marketing businesses. Additionally, apps can no longer collect data using other identifiers (such as hashed email addresses), although it may be more difficult for Apple to enforce this aspect. Apple also announced that it would discard all audio recordings of Siri by default.
According to Facebook, Apple’s decision will severely damage ad targeting and place smaller firms at a disadvantage. However, critics note that Facebook has little credibility regarding data privacy. Nonetheless, other tech and app companies are following Apple’s example of giving more users control and protection over how mobile activities are recorded. Google Assistant users can now opt-in to save their audio data, which are collected over time to recognize their voices better. They can also delete their interactions and agree to have a human review the audio. Instagram added an option that allows users to control which third-party applications have access to their data. Facebook removed tens of thousands of questionable apps from 400 developers. Amazon is also investigating various third-party apps for breaching its privacy rules.
Implications of mobile tracking
Wider implications of mobile tracking may include:
- More legislation aimed at limiting how companies track mobile activity and how long they can store this information.
- Select governments passing new or updated digital rights bills to govern the public’s control over their digital data.
- Algorithms being used to recognize device fingerprinting. Analyzing signals like computer screen resolution, browser size, and the mouse movement is unique to each user.
- Brands using a combination of placation (lip service), diversion (putting privacy links at inconvenient places), and industry-specific jargon to make it hard for customers to opt-out of data collection.
- An increasing number of data brokers selling mobile data information to federal agencies and brands.
Questions to comment on
- How are you protecting your mobile phone from being tracked and constantly monitored?
- What can customers do to make companies more accountable for processing personal information?