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Businesses can track your phone’s movements to target ads

Businesses can track your phone's movements to target ads

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Google and Apple took steps this year to help users protect themselves from hundreds of companies creating profiles based on online behavior. In the meantime, other companies are developing new ways to examine other aspects of our lives in more depth.

In January, Google announced that it would expire third-party cookies on its Chrome browser, making it difficult for advertisers to track our browsing habits. Publishers and advertisers use cookies to compile our purchasing, browsing and search data in extensive user profiles. These profiles reflect our political interests, health, shopping behavior, race, gender and more. Significantly, Google continues to collect data from its own search engine as well as from websites like YouTube or Gmail.

Apple, meanwhile, says apps will be required in an upcoming version of iOS to ask users before tracking them across services, although the effective date has been postponed until next year following complaints from Facebook. A survey in June found that up to 80 percent of respondents would not choose to do this tracking.

Together, the moves will likely put pressure on the middleman industry, who compile user profiles from our digital tracks. “Large companies with large repositories of first-party data about their consumers are unlikely to be particularly negatively affected,” said Charles Manning, CEO of the Kochava analytics platform.

Companies looking for new ways to categorize users and customize content are turning to a new tool: physical signals from the phone itself.

“We’re seeing Apple’s announcements, consumers becoming more privacy conscious, and the death of the cookie,” said Abhishek Sen, co-founder of NumberEight, a UK contextual intelligence startup that derives user behavior from sensors on their smartphones.

Sen describes NumberEight’s flagship product as “Context Prediction Software”. The tool helps apps infer user activities based on data from the sensors of a smartphone: whether they are walking or sitting, near a park or museum, driving or taking a train.

Most smartphones have internal components that record data about their movements. If you’ve ever used the compass on your phone, it is due to internal sensors like the accelerometer (which shows the direction you’re looking in) and the magnetometer, which is pulled on magnetic poles. These and other sensors also power features like lift to wake up, where your phone turns on when you record or rotates horizontally to watch a movie.

Sen knows a lot about the sensors in phones after working with them at Blackberry and Apple. An earlier version of NumberEight’s technology looked at travel and collected sensor data as part of research on London commuters whose bus and rail fares are based on distance traveled. Sen used sensor data to research when someone got off a train or bus in order to automatically calculate their fare. However, given the “incredibly long sales cycle” of public contracts, Sen said the app was about music and other commercial services.

Companies like NumberEight or competitors Sentiance and Neura use sensor data to categorize users. Rather than profiling women over 35, a service could target ads to “early risers” (as indicated by sensors that detect when the phone is picked up after hours of rest) or customize the UI for follow-up commuters (as indicated, when Sensors detect the movement of a train after 5 p.m.). The feedback from the sensors provides a “context” for the physical behavior of the user.

According to Sen, NumberEight restricts how clients can collect and combine user data. For example, a gaming app may already know which of its users is making the most in-app purchases. NumberEight can be used to determine whether these people are heavy runners or long-distance commuters, for example. A music app can use the service to determine when users are most likely to skip certain songs based on whether they are jogging or at home. You can personalize the app based on real-time information on user activity.

In a climate of increasing regulation and public scrutiny, Sen believes that behavioral context will become more important as marketers can no longer compile profiles based on a user’s online activities. Rather than knowing a user’s demographics or personal preferences, services combine what they know about a user’s activity in their own apps with information about what they’re physically doing.

“Brands are forced to rethink their campaigns. It has always been like this:” I want to know the individual and their preferences, “he says.” You don’t have to know the person. You just have to know whether your product or service is reaches the right target group. “

Manning, the CEO of Kochava, says Apple’s changes could cause some apps to abandon traditional data sharing entirely. They’d rather not collect the data than send the message that they are tracking users, “even though they can very well,” he says.

Neither Apple nor Google would stop apps from tracking what users are doing in their own apps or on their websites. And that could benefit other companies like Facebook with large amounts of data on users.

The future is going to be a little more anonymous, with less tracking from all but the biggest in the field, but possibly even less private. “The old world of these predefined segments like soccer mothers or others [ad] The categories will decrease, ”says Manning.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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