Targeted ads mean you can track someone for under $1,000

It can cost as little as $1,000 to cyberstalk a person through mobile advertising, a study from the University of Washington has discovered.

Companies usually collect details to gain insight into their individual demographic and by-services to supply you with personalised advertising. However, a stand-alone person can buy advertisements and hone down and follow a single device.

The study used $1,000 or less on a variety of advertising services and a landing page to explore the privacy concern in advertising. The findings brought up different concerns: in particular that the “average” person can utilise these means to acquire user data and its potential as a stalking tool.

Large companies collecting personal data from users has always been a worry but lies in hypotheticals. This study, however, explores the terrifying possibility of how easy it is to follow someone online.

How did they do it?

Firstly, the experiment found the IP address of an individual using Mobile Ad Identifiers (MAID). From there, it’s then possible to create a series of adverts specifically targeting the user of that IP address and possible to even target the adverts at different locations that the user would be near.

By observing which of the locations the adverts were seen or clicked on, it’s then possible to spot the “trail” of where the user has been.

Large companies collecting personal data from users has always been a worry but lies in hypotheticals. This study, however, explores the terrifying possibility of how easy it is to follow someone online.

Through this method, the research team at the University of Washington could successfully track the studies’ journey from home to work, including coffee shops and the bus stop on the way. It is highly targeted, concerningly accurate, and even the co-author of the study claiming, “To be very honest, I was shocked at how effective this was.”

The research found that anyone with a moderate budget and access to a large advertising company can use the advertising details for tracking. There are ways to stop the potential threat of advert tracking, starting with protecting your device identity. It also raises questions of changes needed in the allocation of advert space by advertising companies, and whether there should be more of a regulation process as to who can buy ad space.

Following anyone is easy

“Anyone from a foreign intelligence agent, to a jealous spouse can pretty easily sign up with a large internet advertising company and on a fairly modest budget use these ecosystems to track another individual’s behaviour,” said lead author Paul Vines.

It does, however, have reassuring limitations in that obtaining a MAID is difficult, and the app displaying the advert would have to be open as the user was being tracked.

Almost all mobile phones will have a setting to reset your MAID, issuing a new ID number for advertising. Bear in mind however that it will affect your personalised ads as your remembered data for advertising services will be restarted. It’s accessible through Google Settings on Android phones, and in the About setting on the iPhone. But avoiding spam-type ads and paying for the ad-free versions of your apps could keep you protected without having to worry about the MAID.

Bekki Barnes

With 5 years’ experience in marketing, Bekki has knowledge in both B2B and B2C marketing. Bekki has worked with a wide range of brands, including local and national organisations.

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