You won’t find out from this New York Times front-page story from yesterday, which is disappointingly long on alarmism but scarce on details, a phenomenon all too frequent in privacy reporting. In the third sentence — immediately after anthropomorphizing smartphones — the story tells us that “advertisers, and tech companies like Google and Facebook, are finding new, sophisticated ways to track people on their phones and reach them with individualized, hypertargeted ads.” Boy, that sounds bad — exactly what horrible new thing have they come up with now?
The third paragraph tells us only what privacy advocates fear. The fourth mentions the National Security Agency. The fifth quotes privacy scholar Jennifer King saying that consumers don’t understand ad tracking.
The sixth paragraph finally gives us a specific example of the “new, sophisticated ways” advertisers and tech companies are “track[ing] people on their phones”: Drawbridge. What does Drawbridge do? It’s “figured out how to follow people without cookies, and to determine that a cellphone, work computer, home computer and tablet belong to the same person, even if the devices are in no way connected.” But this doesn’t tell us much. There are more and less innocuous ways to accomplish the goal of tracking users across devices. On the innocent end of the scale, a website could make you sign into an account, which would allow it to tell who you are, no matter what computer you use. On the malevolent end of the scale, it could hack into your devices and access personal information that is then linked to your activity. The key question is, how is Drawbridge getting the data it is using to track users, and what is in that data? Read more »