You are your phone’s AdID

/ Commentary

Your location data is worth money, billions according to The Markup, in an article casting light on a murky world of hidden privacy notices, data gatherers, brokers and analysts.

The first lesson we should draw from this article is that your phone’s location privacy settings are important. It is relatively easy to stop apps from collecting your location data in iOS and Android. You may have to actually find the settings and make some changes to the defaults.

The whole surveillance industry is built on what seems a fragile foundation of hiding bits of UI and making it fairly difficult to opt-out of things. Of course, most of us don’t want to go to the hassle of changing settings, whether that’s on your phone or a website, which is an entirely rational position, especially in a world that values frictionlessness over everything else. The fact that it’s rare to experience a direct problem as a consequence of just clicking Accept rather than Change settings, only serves to make it even less likely.

However, location seems a more precious commodity than your browser history. We can – perhaps – compartmentalise our lives into the online and the “real” world of people we see and places we have to sit our arses in. When apps and companies like Google and Stirista know where we have been over a period of years, we should think twice. Although our location is linked to a unique device identifier rather than our name, it is possible to infer who we are from data such as time spent in specific locations and information we share online elsewhere, such as who we work for.

Whether organisations actually can or do this effectively is another matter. We can derive some amusement from how the likes of Stirista address their customers versus the people whose data they’re harvesting. I suspect no-one – from the desperate-for-clicks marketing manager in thrall to the god of Big! Data! to the poor soul sharing their location having downloaded some recipe app - is getting the full truth.

We can track where individuals go and contextually target them based on their movement: [we offer] comprehensive identities across physical and digital space…. Reach audiences with ads across every channel as they move across devices and locations throughout the day… No more wasted ad spend. No more missed personalization. Stirista home page

That sounds impressive. Yet when the Markup challenged Ethan Chernofsky, a Placer.ai suit, over privacy, he was slightly more sheepish over the concept of identity, and how effective these services are:

We partner with mobile apps providing location services and receive anonymized aggregated data. Very critically, all data is anonymized and stripped of personal identifiers before it reaches us.

I liked very critically. Best of all, here’s Cuebiq’s Bill Daddi, saying that no-one really bothers sharing their data anyway, because it’s all so very transparent:

The opt-in rates clearly confirm that the users are fully aware of what is happening because the opt-in rates can be as low as less than 20%, depending on the app [my italics].

Regardless of how effective these companies are, it seems negligent to trust them with any personal data. The fact they could infer our name from our device’s unique ID, or accidentally share this data with another party, is frightening enough.

But perhaps we should consider the existentially terrifying possibility that if we own a phone and connect to the internet, a part of what we are is in fact the bundle of commercial preferences our AdIDs and IFDAs express. You may think you can separate the real and online worlds, but in fact a version of the no doubt very responsibly and transparently policed metaverse is where you already live, and you’re known by a randomised sequence of characters. Perhaps the only rational response is to divest oursleves of our online identities altogether.

(Send screenshots of apps asking for location data to the Markup.)

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