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Socially Aware Blog The Law and Business of Social Media

Google’s Mobile Device Tracking Raises Privacy Concerns

Posted in Privacy

Google’s recent announcement that it is preparing to offer behaviorally targeted ads for mobile devices has led to concerns regarding the tracking required to implement such functionality.  Online behavioral advertising has typically been implemented using cookies placed through a user’s web browser when the user visits a website.  Mobile devices, however, often access the Internet through applications that run outside of web browsers and do not support cookies.  This has left web hosts, advertisers, and those that sell advertising to find other ways to track online user behavior.  Google intends to tie users’ in-app behavior to their mobile devices’ unique “device identifiers,” potentially raising privacy concerns.

Google has sought to allay these privacy concerns through two mechanisms:  (1) it anonymizes user device information and allows users to reset the anonymous ID associated with their devices, and (2) it allows users to opt out of device tracking.  Google’s privacy policy, as updated on April 15, 2011, states that Google “uses anonymous IDs to serve ads in applications and other clients that do not support cookie technology.  When [a user] use[s] an application or other client,the application or other client may send device information to [Google].  [Google] anonymize[s] that device information by associating [the user’s] device ID with a random, anonymous string of characters.” Google uses the information received via the anonymous device IDs in the same ways that it uses AdSense information gathered through cookies.

Google’s announcement regarding mobile device tracking comes amidst growing scrutiny related to Internet tracking and privacy.  For example, in April 2011, Senators John Kerry (D., Mass.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) proposed legislation setting forth “fair information practice principles” that would set minimum standards regarding the acceptability of information collection.  More recently, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) went a step further, proposing an affirmative obligation for companies to not track people who click a browser flag indicating that they do not want to be tracked.  Additionally, Google’s new policy shortly preceded a lawsuit filed against it in federal court in Michigan alleging, among other things, that Google “d[id] not disclose its comprehensive tracking of users nor its use of a unique device ID attached to each specific phone” in its Terms of Service.