FTC Workshop to Examine Cross-Device Tracking

November 10, 2015

Takeaways

FTC says its concerned about loss of privacy, but runs the risk of calling all digital connectivity problematic.

Cross-device tracking, or the ability of platforms and publishers to recognize the same person is using a desktop, smartphone or tablet, is up for scrutiny in a November 16 workshop by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Among the regulator’s concerns is the potential loss of privacy by consumers who are unaware they are being tracked. In truth, the FTC risks labeling all digital connectivity problematic. 

Cross-device tracking comes in two forms. Deterministic tracking links users to a single account when they sign-in to a publisher or platform. As a result, our digital lives are portable across, say, Apple, Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Probabilistic tracking takes an educated guess of your digital fingerprint from the ways you use the web, from IP addresses to devices types and even fonts. This type of tracking has been used to authenticate users, secure data, and fight fraud, but with cookies crumbling as a tracking tool, this inexact science is becoming more valuable to advertisers in particular.

Probabilistic tracking is also becoming more problematic to the FTC. Users may not have much say in their tracking. Not that this is new—when have you ever been asked to approve a billboard before looking at it? Then again, the billboard never looked back or followed you. Privacy fears are stoked when it’s not clear who’s tracking whom.

The initial reaction may be to run from these technologies, but that would be ill-advised. First, deterministic tracking, as long as it comes with a healthy dose of transparency, is fast becoming a useful byproduct of bringing our scattered digital lives into focus. No matter the device you’re on or where you are, you can always be who are you are in accessing your information. Such identification can even help protect consumer identity online. Deterministic tracking should hardly be the target of scrutiny.

Among the FTC's concerns is the potential loss of privacy by consumers who are unaware they are being tracked. In truth, the FTC risks labeling all digital connectivity problematic. 

Second, probabilistic tracking isn’t as devilish as it may seem. Advertising’s Holy Grail is to reach the right person, with the right message, at the right time. In a way, this is a similar goal for ad viewers; that is, not to be shown useless messages. Tracking isn’t merely a one-way street to company coffers, nor a marginally better route for pop-up ads. Done rightly, consumers don’t just avoid harm, but gain products and services at little to no cost, such as free email that’s synced to their devices.

Our self-interest often diverges from our privacy interests. After all, today we willingly hand over information online, particularly when the benefits are real and terms of the exchange clear. What we ask for is (a) something valuable in return and (b) to not be harmed. Seen in this light, privacy fears may actually be voicing higher order needs.

All of this tracking is useful to advertisers, as the FTC makes clear, but ever-present tracking is also a byproduct of the Internet of Everything. The mobile, networked connection of people, data, processes, and things is what begs these questions in the first place. Cross-device technologies have applications far beyond advertising alone. Regulators cannot touch one part of the network without affecting another part down the line.

The FTC’s latest workshop arrives with an eye on our fears. Yet cross-device tracking, rather than a harbinger of doom, is a sign of Americans’ digital mobility. 

We live our lives with an assumption of mobility; Americans spend more time on their smartphones than any other digital device. Consumer privacy fears are legitimate and substantial—as are the stakes. To stop all forms of tracking would be to shutter the digital world as we know it. That much should be off the table.

Current laws already equip regulators to target unfair or deceptive practices. These rules are just as important today, if not more. Consumers should know they are being protected from overreach and harm. The FTC is well-placed to encourage companies to act as trustees of user data, with obligations to not harm the consumers whose data they are privy to.

Our brave new digital world is increasingly under scrutiny by regulators. The FTC’s latest workshop arrives with an eye on our fears. Yet cross-device tracking, rather than a harbinger of doom, is a sign of Americans’ digital mobility. Consumers would be best served by oversight that matches how they actually use the Internet.