77 Percent: Don't Track Me, 56 Percent: What's Tracking?

77 Percent: Don't Track Me, 56 Percent: What's Tracking?

Consumers are intensely uncomfortably with being “tracked” by their cell phones according to recent surveys, raising questions about perceptions of privacy and the economics of user information.

Eighty-five percent of Americans are uncomfortable with mobile advertising that is personalized for them through tracking, according to the survey conducted by TRUSTe, an Internet privacy service provider. Seventy-seven percent of smartphone users polled don’t want to share their location with handset makers or app developers via their phones.

Paradoxically, another survey conducted by digital marketing firm White Horse found that only 56 percent of phone owners know their phones send location the platform owner, be it Apple, Google or Microsoft.

If both surveys are accurate, we have to assume that more than half of the people interviewed by TRUSTe about tracking were hearing about it for the first time. And if the survey questions used loaded words like “tracking,” results may be even more skewed.

The way Apple’s recent location data controversy — a genuine surprise — spread to “revelations” that other smartphone platforms transmit location data, when this was never a secret, highlights both how sensitive people are to being “tracked” and how incomplete most people’s grasp of the technology really is.

For example, the handset companies supposedly anonymize location data. The same can’t be said for the record that all cell phone users leave as the move around a city, switching from one cell site to another, leaving a trail of data in carrier logs that could be easily used to recreate a person’s general movements.

As information about tracking become common knowledge, Fran Maier, president and executive chair of TRUSTe, predicts companies will have to better inform customers about how their data is being stored and used and offer more choices for limiting those abilities in order to gain consumer trust or risk losing a sale.

“Overcoming consumer hesitancy and addressing increased lawmaker and regulator concerns require privacy practices that include notice and choice,” Maier told PC Magazine.

Companies can argue privacy statements are agreed to by willing consumers, but only half of the people polled by TRUSTe said they read a privacy statement before agreeing to it, a number that might even be skewed by people reporting what they know they should have done. Maier said that’s at least partly due to it being too hard to read the lengthy statements on a small smartphone screen.

If better ways of informing people about tracking are introduced, it won’t necessarily mean the end of such practices. Thirty-seven percent of those polled by TRUSTe said they’d allow tracking if an app developer gave them a lower price for the app in return, and 35 percent of those surveyed said they “always” or “sometimes” share their location voluntarily on their phones already.

With a slew of location-based coupon services on the way and location-based advertising a central part of mobile ad networks’ strategies, people may decide tracking is fine if it leads to cheaper stuff.

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