As Location Data Becomes More Precise, We Must Redefine Privacy

Facebook knows what I like. As of this month, Facebook also knows where to find me, at least to within 15 feet of my location thanks to an impressive global mapping project. Combining consumer likes and engagement with staggeringly precise location data is an obvious boon for Facebook’s mobile advertising initiative, but Facebook is only keeping up with the Joneses. Google has similar capabilities, thanks to the company’s aggressive interest in mapping.

In the grand scheme of things, today’s tracking technologies are quickly moving us from a world where ads follow you online to one where ads will meet you where you are going. But as the digital world merges with the physical, we need to do a level-set on our approach to privacy.

For Starters … Let’s not overreact to what people say about privacy

In a 2016 Pew study, 74 percent of Americans said it is “very important” to them that they control who gets to access information about them, and 65 percent said it is “very important” to them to control what information is collected about them. If these results are as unambiguous as the numbers suggest, where are the riots over the Equifax breach? You would think that your Social Security number and DOB would have to be considered to be more sensitive to the consumer than a browser ID or a GPS location.

In this same Pew study, 86 percent of internet users reported taking steps to mask or remove their digital footprints. As you process that information and the plurality of people that have to be involved, also consider that it is extremely unlikely that 86 percent of internet users know how to open more than one browser window, much less clear their cache. The populist messaging to consumers is outrage, but consider for a moment the benefits it could bring to the duopoly, industry trade groups, privacy startups and venture capitalists.

Most consumers readily sign away their “privacy rights” whenever they download a new app or take a photo on the iPhone; they want to utilize these ubiquitous technologies that are now a part of everyday life. It’s a form versus function argument. Most consumers don’t obsess about privacy and if they did, it is largely an ideology reaction to news being been pushed at them by pundits or legislators.

OK, but is anything actually changing on the privacy front?

If you believe the press and the industry trade groups, ad tech is adjusting to the consumer backlash around privacy. We have cookie and ad blocking software and Apple with Safari 11 is blocking both first and third party cookies. According to PageFair, more than 600 million devices worldwide currently run ad blocking software.

While it’s vital to remember privacy concerns drove the early adoption of ad blockers on desktop, and Apple declared cookie blocking in response to the demands of the marketplace, it is equally important to recognize that the ad tech industry is fully capable of adapting.

The U.S. has increasingly become a mobile-first society—and as Americans will come to understand, cookies on mobile devices are largely ineffective and online tracking technology can easily turn a device ID into a physical address. The key ad tech vendors have either sold you your device or already have an email or social account with your name, address and current location. This information is associated with a proprietary ID that is only accessible behind their walled gardens. Today, the cookie has become little more than a convenient whipping boy replaced by a closed technology that gives select vendors a competitive advantage.

Say what you want about the evil cookie, at least it was an open solution.

We already have a framework for privacy. It’s time to expand it.

Our ideas about privacy differ from the physical world to the digital. Direct mail marketers, for example, routinely use mailing addresses, which have been considered public information for decades. But if those same marketers were to send unsolicited ads to our inboxes, we’d label them spammers and worry that our digital privacy was somehow compromised. This dichotomy only holds up as long as we separate the physical world from the digital. As these worlds merge, perhaps we need to consider a reset of our understanding of privacy.

One place to start might be to understand the touchpoints for reaching consumers and what act of user targeting actually constitutes harm to the consumer. In the physical world, a consumer has common points of contact: the home address, television, email and phone. Today, those touch points can arguably be extended to desktops, streaming TV, mobile devices and even IoT devices. Common sense is typically employed with regard to marketing — targeting users with a genuine purpose — and when that marketing is unsolicited or unwanted, there are common sense remedies like do-not-call lists or Spam protections.

If the consumer is being trolled with inappropriate offers, there are existing legal structures like the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Under that law, when a company pulls a consumer credit report to advertise a loan, the lender must honor the advertised rate. Guiding and incentivizing truth in advertising is a noble goal. Put simply, if I give a lender permission to access my data, I need to get something in return. That exchange could be a fundamental building block of privacy going forward.

If you walk into a grocery store and see a reminder on your mobile device that you’re out of soda, it should be transparent to the consumer that a marketer was able to connect the dots leading from your refrigerator, to your phone, to your local grocery store. The mere fact that technology makes it possible to link our data streams from one physical location to the next isn’t creepy. What’s creepy is the idea that such a process is ever hidden from consumers and they have no power to block that outreach going forward.

Ultimately, consumers should always have a choice. As digital data moves closer and closer to our physical selves, the choice to share (or to keep private) becomes more important. If ad tech can build and adapt tools that redefine our concept of privacy, the industry can certainly create tools that give consumers comfort that their information is being used appropriately and they always have a choice.