When online marketers target mobile device users, nothing’s out of bounds

Mon, 10/28/2013 - 2:54pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

We’ve all heard about the theory of six degrees of separation: how everyone is essentially six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. Today, online marketers, when tracking individuals’ activities across the Web, have learned to conquer individuals’ ability to keep their web browsing habits uniquely separate among different devices.
Online ad companies are scaling down their use of cookies, particularly on mobile devices, to track consumers. Until recently, these companies had no way of determining if someone viewed an ad on one device, say a smart phone, and then went to the advertiser’s web site from, say, a laptop, when they arrived home. Cookies, in particular, have been troublesome to online ad companies because they can’t offer a full profile of a user who uses multiple devices during the course of a day.
Recently, the New York Times reported that one new ad service called Drawbridge has established partnerships with online publishers and ad exchanges which notify that service when a user visits a web site or mobile app. ( Based on these notifications, Drawbridge determines whether the user has the same behavioral patterns across multiple devices and whether that person is indeed the common owner. Then, the user is given an anonymous identifier in order to follow their online habits across the multiple devices. Certain mobile apps can also track users across devices based on their behavior when logged in.

The article caught the attention of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate online ad companies and their cross-device tracking practices. The New York Times quotes his letter to the Commission: “Such tracking envelops users in a digital environment where marketers know their preferences and personal information no matter which device they use while consumers are largely kept in the dark.” (

People who thought that it was wise to use different devices for different purposes now have something to give them pause. For example, anyone who uses their work computer for business purposes and reserves their home computer for private activities may now have to worry about a taboo ad turning up at a most inopportune time, such as when the boss is looking over their shoulder. Perhaps you’ll be asked to give a presentation over the conference room projector and while visiting a given web site, an ad for a certain drug that you wish to remain private or maybe a debt counseling service turns up for all to see. Or, replace the boss looking over your shoulder with your child exposed to an irreverent ad on the home desktop thanks to browsing activities on the tablet while in a hotel room.

Drawbridge is quick to point out that their technology can show different ads to different users of the same device. Still, I don’t think anyone who partitions their online activities among different devices should feel the slightest bit assured. Online advertising and tracking makes the Internet world go around, so these practices are necessary to some degree. What Senator Markey is asking – and what we should all be asking – is to what degree we should be comfortable. Once again, the Web is conquering another of life’s boundaries, and we will likely need regulatory or legislative clarity if we want the boundary to stand.


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