Free Market Fixes Mobile Privacy (2020 Aug)

by Barry A. Liebling

It is no secret that your smart phone will normally keep track of your location. That is how map and navigation applications are able to work. Furthermore, information on your whereabouts is generally available to your phone service provider. The vendor may decide to store the information or destroy it, but at least initially it is sent to some remote location.

There are numerous apps that utilize location data. When I am in stores I sometimes get text messages and ads that announce what is on sale, ask if I would like assistance where I am shopping, or enquire if I would like to know about restaurants that are nearby. While it is obvious that some of my actions are not private (due to having a cell phone in my possession), it is unclear exactly who has access to information about me. Private companies might be monitoring me. Are government entities also snooping to see where I have been?

It gets more complicated. When a consumer looks at an ad that appears on a smartphone, information is frequently harvested regarding who looked at the ad, the demographics and purchasing history of the viewer, and (of course) the viewer’s present location. These data can be sold to outside entities – typically advertisers that send the viewer more ads tailored to the presumed preferences. This is called “bidstream” data. Essentially, when an ad on a smart phone is viewed, facts about the viewer are packaged and purchased by various advertisers (and businesses and perhaps political organizations).

How are the owners of mobile devices reacting to this increasingly common activity? Some may not notice it all. Some are aware of the tracking and regard it as a useful service. Ads and communications are selected that are relevant to people who are pre-screened to be interested. Of course, there are people who do not like the idea that their activities are being recorded whenever their mobile device is turned on.

And there is a group of congressional office holders who are incensed by the “unregulated activity” of institutions that are participating in “bidstream” activity. Recently, a cadre of busybody government officials made a formal request for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate (and certainly to put a damper on) “bidstream”-related practices. In a document made available to the public they complain that “Unregulated data brokers have access to bidstream data and are using it in outrageous ways that violate Americans’ privacy.”

Step back and consider what effect “bidstream” activity is having on citizens. Some are not aware of the practice, and critics certainly have the right to inform everyone about what is occurring. Cell phone service providers have an obligation to inform their customers exactly what information they are collecting and how it will be used (or sold). I suspect that in service agreements between vendors and customers there is a fine-print statement about this – which is probably ignored by most people (including me). Again, disturbed observers who are not affiliated with phone services can raise the alarm – via social media, advertising, conventional publications – and urge customers to resist the “bidstream” trend.

Think of the people who do not want to be tracked when they use their mobile devices. Can a person turn off the snooping? Apparently it is very easy. There are a host of online instructions for shutting off the location function in smart phones. The methods describe ways of disabling tracking completely (and then turning it back on) as well as selectively allowing only the tracking that the customer wants to occur.,showing%20whether%20they%20have%20location%20tracking%20activated.%20

But many people are not technology-savvy. Even with clear instructions they find it difficult to adjust their phone settings to thwart snooping. There is an easy solution for customers with less skill. The cell phone service providers have technical support specialists who will assist customers in disabling tracking services. If you cannot do it yourself, help is available free-of-charge.

So what might be accomplished by a Federal Trade Commission investigation? Cell phone users could be reminded that their activities are being tracked. But turning tracking on and off is not a topic that warrants government intervention. The free market can deliver the amount of privacy that cell phone users desire. The government officials that are alarmed by “bidstream” practices should put their attention on important problems.

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