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How Ads Track You on Your Smartphone

Mobile ad tracking explained

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The myth holds that advertisers can’t track users on smartphones like they can on PCs. But that’s not entirely true.

Consider Apple. It’s been arguably the biggest roadblock to mobile tracking. Apple uses UDID (unique device identifiers that are used by app developers to track user behaviors), mobile advertising’s Rosetta Stone. But it’s not crazy about others using them; it once turned away apps that wanted to access UDIDs for advertising. But with its latest mobile operating system update, Apple introduced an alternative, the Advertising Identifier.

Here’s how Advertising ID could work. Let’s say someone is playing Draw Something, the mobile game, but needs to buy virtual currency to get a new paint palette. Then, he switches to another game. With Apple’s Advertising ID and partnerships with the two games, Lyfe Mobile would be able to promote a virtual currency discount to the gamer based on his interest in Draw Something even though he’s moved on to another app.

On its face, the identifier replaced the UDID with a more privacy-aware, device-level identifier that could be used to target ads while letting users opt out. Kevin Trilli, vp of product at Truste, an online security and privacy firm, said it was nice that consumers can now easily opt out of future tracking, but to stop any companies already tracking your device, you have to reset it. And, said Trilli, “Who wants to reset their phone to delete a cookie?”

Perhaps Apple’s goal was to have a persistent identifier that addressed privacy concerns but let in mobile ad targeters. That’s how Charlie Lambropoulos saw it. The co-founder of mobile ad firm Lyfe Mobile said Apple lets his company match users across apps.

To be clear, Apple hasn’t unlocked a new market. If anything, it’s following Google’s lead. The native Android browser permits cookie dropping, and companies can track the unique IDs of devices running the mobile operating system, said Sephi Shapira, CEO of MassiveImpact, a mobile ad network. When it comes to being able to access a device identifier, he said, “Android is a nonissue.” On the other hand, Google’s ad exchange keeps device IDs from being shared without the actual ID being hidden, Lambropoulos said.

As Apple and Google navigate the barriers around mobile ad tracking, Facebook may have already broken the blockade but kept the privacy walls intact. In September, the social network said it would begin testing a third-party mobile ad network that would let brands target users of non-Facebook apps according to those users’ Facebook data. Facebook safeguards the user’s Facebook ID, yet unlocking the mountain of data of that ID is key to ad targeting that’s more scientific than an app’s contextual environment.

Ernie Cormier, CEO of mobile ad exchange Nexage, said Facebook’s growing role in mobile advertising has the ability to grow mobile ad spend overall. “The ‘rising-tide-lifts-all-boats’ metaphor applies,” he said.