It’s Monday, 6:15 a.m. The alarm sounds, and as I reach for my phone, half-asleep in the dawn, the tracking begins. Going about my daily routine — the commute to work, settling into my desk, then ducking out for lunch or meetings — I’m swiping, clicking, tapping, and typing on my smartphone. All the while, I’m being followed by firms that are tracking, and targeting me, with every step I take.
But it’s not hackers or voyeurs following my movements. In fact, I’ve actually welcomed these observers into my life, and sometimes don’t even notice they’re there. But they’re paying minute attention to my every move, then firing away with advertisements, designed for that moment, and just for me.
Most of us now live here, or soon will — at the slightly queasy intersection of consumerism and surveillance.
The dozens of apps on our phones, most of them free, aren’t just serving up information and entertainment. Many are able to ascertain our whereabouts based on the phone’s GPS and can then sell that geolocation data to digital marketers. Unlike traditional print or television ads, location-based marketing has the benefit of knowing where we are, whom we’re with, and whether their ads are working.
Geotargeted mobile marketing is one of the fastest growing forms of advertising — and one of the most controversial. It has arisen in part because, as more of us use streaming and on-demand viewing services, we’re watching far fewer television ads. And because so many of us carry our smartphones at all times, digital marketers have seized the opportunity to gather and sell data on where we are, what we do — and what we might want to buy. In 2017, marketers spent $17.1 billion on geotargeted mobile ads, and the research firm BIA Advisory Services forecasts that number will more than double to $38.7 billion by 2022.
Or, as Rick Ducey, a digital strategy adviser with BIA Advisory Services put it in a recent study: “Where you go is who you are.”
Think about it for a second: Even if you don’t share your address, your profession, or what you bought online this year, much could be gleaned from the places you frequent. Do you make a daily visit to the gym? Work in a tall office tower? Wander into a store while taking a lunch break? Each pinpoint on the map of your day helps create a profile, or “audience segment,” that can be used to serve you ads.
This surge in geotargeted ads is raising the ire of privacy advocates, who say marketers can learn far more about us from our location data than we may realize. David Choffnes, an assistant professor of computer science at Northeastern University, has found that some retailers’ apps, running in the background of our phones, collect the GPS coordinates from users every two minutes.
From such drab and fleeting details, a revealing picture emerges.
“Not only can I see where you work and live, but I can see where you worship, if you go to a doctor’s office, or what support groups you might be attending,” said Gennie Gebhart, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Here’s how the ads find us: Our phone carriers combine cellular data and the phone’s built-in GPS to keep tabs on where we are at all times. That, coupled with your phone’s Wi-Fi, which regularly pings off available networks, creates a base line of geolocation data.
Apps add more data to your profile. Many offer a prompt when you download them, asking whether they can collect details on your location. They can then anonymize and sell that data to marketers or other intermediaries who can target you with advertising or use that data to make business decisions. Even if you opt out of location tracing, many can still pull information about where you are from other sources, such as your social media profiles.
Once they access the data streams, marketers can begin using the information to target you. As you walk to work, your phone’s GPS and Wi-Fi data leave digital bread crumbs that a coffee shop can use to send you coupons or help select a location for a new store.
If you check in at the gym daily, marketers will know, and ads for Whole Foods or insurance companies can follow you. If you’re shopping online at work and wander out for lunch break, a store nearby might want to let you it has the shoes you’re looking for in stock and will ping you with an ad.
‘You can lie about your data, but you can’t lie about your routine.’
Ducey said the information helps marketers answer questions like: “Where are the people I want to reach and where do they hang out?” Location data can also test the efficacy of ad campaigns — tracking, for example, how many individuals who saw an ad for a store actually show up to shop there.
In the past, companies used basic demographic information to target consumers by age, income level, education, or ethnicity, said John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of Internet Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of “We Are Data.” Then companies began to dig deeper, creating “psychographic profiles” based on our affinities — assessing whether someone is politically liberal or conservative, for example, or identifies as a sports fan or as part of a religious group. This information can be gleaned through surveys, by tracking consumption habits, or through social media, as Cambridge Analytica did by tracking Facebook users in the 2016 elections.
GPS data offer a degree of objectivity that cuts through complex and sometimes contradictory information about who we are, Cheney-Lippold said.
“There is something much more intimate in the GPS data,” he said. It has the capacity to track hundreds of data points on things like “how you move through places, and how fast, who you’re moving with, and the places where you stop.”
“There is something very mundane about GPS that also becomes very profitable,” he said. “You can lie about your data, but you can’t lie about your routine. There is something very real about that.”
Of course, this form of tracking has raised privacy concerns. European regulators have begun to crack down on how much personal data companies can gather from the public. This May, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which forces Internet companies to ask for consent before gathering any information from users.
In the United States, we haven’t yet gotten that far. “Companies are now completely legally able to collect your data,” said Choffnes. The strongest consumer protections come through the Federal Trade Commission, which occasionally cracks down on app developers that fail to disclose just how much data they’re collecting, he said.
But the tide is starting to turn: In June, California passed digital privacy legislation that is modeled on the GDPR.
EFF’s Gebhart said that while some phone carriers have begun limiting the information they share with outside parties, consumers should push companies to adopt best practices to protect our privacy.
“In the current landscape we’re living in, it would take an unrealistic diligence of someone with a computer science and law degree to exhaustingly determine what information is being shared with who and when,” she said.
Companies buying and selling geolocation data in the United States now number in the thousands, each slicing and dicing data in ways that would make an unwitting smartphone user’s head spin. And they’re not just selling ads but also making correlations between data sets that can be quite illuminating and lucrative to companies.
David Shim, the chief executive of the location analytics firm Placed, pulls data from over 300 million smartphones each month. He said his company’s aim is to become what Nielsen’s service is for TV, or what comScore is for the Web. “Our goal is to make the physical world as measurable as TV and digital,” he said.
Using phone location data, the company has been able to ascertain that Netflix users most frequently dine at In-N-Out and Chili’s restaurants, and that people who own bitcoin currency are most likely to buy Hyundais and shop at Apple. Those kind of insights could help the restaurants target ads or encourage a Hyundai dealership to start accepting bitcoin.
MIT Media Lab spinout Thasos Group has developed a platform that uses geolocation data to assess economic activity. For the last seven years, it’s been selling hedge funds anonymized GPS data tracking the activity of factory employees at commodity processing plants the funds have invested in. More recently, Thasos has begun focusing on retail, tracking foot traffic patterns at malls, grocery stores, and more.
Thasos was able to determine, for example, that Whole Foods saw a 17 percent increase in foot traffic last August after its parent company, Amazon, announced it was slashing prices. The company identified Trader Joe’s shoppers as the most common defectors.
Geolocation data provide a degree of “radical transparency” that has the capacity to not only revolutionize the marketing world, but affect real estate, finance, and other industries, Thasos’ founder and chief executive Greg Skibiski said. He believes we need to begin setting standards now to ensure we protect privacy while simultaneously exploring its vast potential. “The data is out there and never coming back,” he said. “And we need rules for it.”
Consumers will need to contemplate those ethical boundaries as daily life more and more frequently intersects with these new digital pathways. Our own geolocation data streams, when combined with those of millions of other users, can reveal powerful patterns. And marketers realize that if “where you go is who you are,” then knowing where all of us are, all of the time, is a force that can shape the future of commerce.Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.