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Is mobile sensor data the future of tracking?

Posted October 5, 2020

You’ve probably heard of apps that access your location information and online activity for marketing purposes. But recently, a new privacy has emerged: the prospect of apps using mobile sensor data to do the exact same thing!

In this short article, we will introduce you to this new phenomenon, tell you how it works, and give you some thoughts on the future of privacy.

What is mobile sensor data?

Our mobile devices contain hardware sensors that generate data about our devices. For example, an iOS device’s accelerometer measures changes in speed along one of three axes; the magnetometer can be used to determine the cardinal direction of the device; the built-in gyroscopes help determine device rotation.

App data developers can access this data through Apple̵

7;s Core Motion framework, and it’s used to provide app functionality and a better user experience.

How is mobile sensor data used?

It’s easy to see why some app developers need access to our sensor data – and how this access benefits us. For example, imagine a VCR app that could not tell if you were holding the device horizontally or vertically. a training app that failed to determine how fast you ran; or a map app that did not know which direction you were turning. Such apps lack core functionality, and will probably be extremely frustrating to use as well!

However, as our experience with location data has shown, even apps like Do not do it need a certain type of data, have an ugly habit of collecting it anyway – and then analyze, share or sell the data to profile users and show them targeted ads.

How do marketers want to use sensor data?

Several startups now offer services based on mobile sensor data to companies and app developers. The basic idea is that mobile sensor data can be used to deduce what a user is doing, and in this way provide “behavioral context” to how they communicate with your app. This information can then be used to make decisions about how to interact with users in the app, what kind of content and ads to display, and so on. Over time, sensor data also creates a behavioral profile for a user: a profile that can then be used to place them in an audience segment for targeted advertising or communication. Advertisers may not be able to target you as a member of a demographic or place group, such as “women aged 30-45” or “people living in London”, but they can Be able to target yourself as someone who keeps you up late at night or has walking habits that are characteristic of dog owners.

To give a real example, a startup company called Neura says that their service can help determine user routines such as “waking up, leaving home, commuting to work and getting to the gym”, and that this knowledge enables companies to ” deliver timely and relevant interactions, leading to increased engagement and retention ”.

Neura also explains that since “each user has a distinct lifestyle – a morning commuter, a workaholic, an avid runner, a student, a home parent”, they can be divided into audience segments “based on each user’s unique lifestyle and behavioral traits”. Neura’s customers can “send game alerts to Morning commuters as they board the train and tailor specific promotions to Fitness Enthusiasts, Hardworkers and Sleepless Users”.

Is this a threat to privacy?

It is difficult to measure the extent to which this new use of sensor data threatens the privacy of the individual user, especially as this phenomenon is still in its infancy.

Companies like Neura (including competitors NumberEight and Sentiance) all say that they value users’ privacy, and that they take data security seriously. NumberEight notes, for example, that the platform processes all sensor data on the user’s device, which means that they do not transmit user data or keep it on their servers. Sentiance highlights a case study in which their platform provided mobile sensor data to support a program aimed at improving driver safety, and emphasizes that all of this data was anonymized.

But while some companies handle data responsibly, there is no guarantee that others will do the same – especially if sensor data intelligence becomes the “next big thing” in digital marketing, with countless new companies looking to monetize the trend. In addition, skeptics may argue that in the history of mobile technology, there have been many cases where allegedly anonymous data eventually turned out to be a little less anonymous than advertised!

In addition to privacy issues, some observers may also have social concerns about the potential misuse of behavioral profiling and audience segmentation capabilities enabled by sensor data; There has already been similar abuse of ad targeting tools from Facebook and major video streaming services.

Finally, there is another, more human factor to consider, although it is admittedly more difficult to quantify: many people are sick and tired of being tracked, profiled and marketed every time they pick up their phones. Large numbers of users want to regain their privacy, and this has driven the latest privacy improvements in iOS 14 and Safari – improvements that may ironically lead to the current increase in sensor data tracking, as advertisers try to replace the data insight they lose.

If marketers and app developers are no longer able to track users directly, they can turn to behavioral context and profiling as the next best thing. One day, Apple may have to deal with the privacy of sensor data in the same way that it has addressed concerns about location data in recent years. We are still in the early stages of this new and somewhat worrying use of sensor data, but it is definitely a problem for privacy conscious users to be aware of and to watch out for in the future.

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