The Federal Trade Commission recently released Cross-Device Tracking: An FTC Staff Report that describes the technology used to track consumers across multiple Internet-connected devices, the benefits and challenges associated with it, and industry efforts to address those challenges.
Cross-device tracking can serve different purposes. It can enable consumers to switch seamlessly between their devices and pick up exactly where they left off in their online activity. Cross-device tracking can also help prevent fraud, as companies learn which devices consumers’ accounts are accessed from. However, the major purpose of this technology is to serve target ads to a user on a user’s multiple devices so that advertisements can be better tailored to the right individual. The ads served to a user across devices are more effective and more likely to lead to conversions because they are based on that user’s previous activities on all of his devices, not merely the device or browser currently in use. Cross-device tracking also allows for better ability to understand purchases, behavior, and intent. However, while clearly bringing benefits to our everyday life, cross-device tracking presents privacy challenges.
No Awareness of Cross-device Tracking
Ongoing cross-device tracking is not always obvious. Often users are tracked without having signed in to any service. Consumers may also be unaware of the potential scope of cross-device tracking. Such practices may not be limited to tracking consumers across desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, but may also include viewing information from smart televisions, health information from a wearable device, or even shopping habits at brick-and-mortar stores. Companies that employ cross-device tracking technology rarely notify users of such practices in their privacy policies.
Limited Ability Control Tracking
Another challenge may be consumers’ limited ability to control cross-device tracking. While users have become savvier about making choices to opt-out of traditional online tracking through browser cookies, some of these choices may not apply to cross-device tracking.
Data Security Concerns
Cross-devise tracking also poses data security concerns. Large amounts of aggregated information that may include data like hashed email accounts, browsing activity, and health information may potentially become a target for hackers.
Industry organizations have been taking steps to address the above concerns. Network Advertising Initiative and Digital Advertising Alliance released guidelines for advertisers that seek to improve transparency and choice in cross-device tracking. The FTC is similarly encouraging entities that engage in cross-device tracking to (1) truthfully disclose tracking to consumers and business partners; (2) offer consumers choices about how their cross-device activity is tracked; (3) obtain consumers’ affirmative express consent before engaging in cross-device tracking on sensitive topics and before collecting and sharing precise geolocation information; and (4) maintain reasonable security to avoid future unexpected and unauthorized uses of data.