Explainer: Behavioral Targeting

The topic of mobile privacy has become a hot button issue and is continuing to gain stream, especially around tracking and targeting. However, there are a lot of misconceptions as to what is actually possible on a mobile phone at this point and to what degree. Below, we’ll examine behavioral targeting and why most fears surrounding it on mobile are unfounded as of yet.
What It Is: Behavioral targeting is a method of directing ads to a users based on their specific interests and habits. On traditional web, the web browser receives a file with information regarding a user’s activity, known as a cookie. Different areas of that website or different websites using the same advertising network are then able to read the information from that cookie to determine what the user has done and target ads specifically to them. Knowing that a user repeatedly views the auto section of a news publication will allow the ads targeted in the rest of the site (or other sites) with auto ads.
Why It Matters: To the degree that it’s used online, it’s not possible in mobile. On mobile web, using either webkit or Safari on the iPhone and iPad disable the acceptance of third-party cookies by default. Mobile websites are also not able to access the unique identifier of a smartphone either. Mobile apps can get the unique identifier, but it can’t aggregate behavior between apps. This means the type of behavioral targeting on the desktop web is rare in mobile.
Who Is Doing It: The mobile platforms are safeguarding against it by default. Apple and Google both allow a user to enable cookies and protect the user on the app side by making it a more trying practice to accomplish. Mobile ad networks like Millennial Media and Jumptap collect a user’s unique device ID, Internet protocol, platform information, and analytics information from each session of interaction the user has apps in their networks. But there haven’t been many examples of companies using that information to behaviorally track a user. It’s possible, but it’s not widespread.
Assessment: Behavioral tracking will have to change to survive on mobile. At this point it’s more likely that advertising is targeting users based on location and device information instead of behavior on a specific site. Reach is the largest issue, with so much fragmentation and the separation between apps and mobile web. Users concerned about behavioral tracking should leave cookies turned off. Advertisers concerned about it will need to push the technology or comb the data for alternative solutions.
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