Mobile ad tracking usually evokes feelings that relate to stalking, creeping and general disdain. But is the feature something we should really feel disgusted by? Or is the constant media talk of our privacy being threatened led us to start blowing into cold milk, too? Is mobile ad tracking really that much of a threat to our privacy, or is it in fact a nifty little feature which improves our mobile experience? There will also be an explanation on how to opt out of mobile ad tracking, but that doesn’t mean I am generally against such features.
What is mobile ad tracking and how does it work?
Mobile ad tracking should not be confused with online ad tracking, two different features which even confused the author of these words at first. Unlike online ad tracking, where ad networks track your browser behavior through cookies, seeing the sites you visit and how long you stay with certain content, mobile ad tracking relates exclusively to apps and not your browser. It is the way ad networks identify you through various apps you use on your mobile device, trying to form a complete picture of your behavior in order to serve relevant ads.
There are two elements to consider from the paragraph above: 1) multiple apps; and 2) relevant ads.
When looking at multiple apps, mobile ad tracking means basically the same ads will be served to you in all the apps you have which support ads. For example, if you used an app to find tower defense games, you might see ads for such games in other apps later on.
Relevant ads are where mobile ad tracking really shows. Here’s the deal: turning off the feature will not disable ads in apps. It will not even reduce the number of those ads – it will just (most likely) make them irrelevant, to some extent. Your mobile behavior creates your profile, and *relevant* ads are served with regard to that profile. Turn the feature off and the profile is wiped – which could mean you’ll start seeing ads for things that don’t interest you in the slightest. For example, if you’re using apps that are common with 20-30-year-old males who like sports, keeping ad tracking active might result in you seeing ads for the next Superbowl. Turn it off, and you might start seeing ads for nail polish – completely irrelevant to the target audience.
How does it work?
Looking at the two biggest mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, we see that both work in a similar fashion. Each device is assigned a digital identification code. These codes are similar to a cookie — they allow advertisers to know that a specific iPhone or Android user using a certain app and can serve an ad targeting that user.
For Android, the code is called Android Advertising ID, and it is used by advertisers to determine if they have already served an ad to a specific user. They also use the ID to retarget and frequency cap users.
Apple’s IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) was introduced in May 2013, when it replaced the old UDID (Universal Device ID). It was done to give the user more control in both security and privacy.
Android devices work in a similar fashion. Its code is called Android Advertising ID, and it replaced the old Android ID in October 2013, for the same reason.
The real question is should you allow ad networks to look over your shoulder and into your mobile screen or not. Here are the pros and cons of opting out:
Pros and Cons of opting out
Deciding to opt-out of mobile ad tracking means advertising networks no longer have any insight into your mobile app usage. If you don’t want to give such information away, you should turn the feature off. However, there are two important things you should also know. First, there is no private information shared here. That means you’re just a part of a larger statistic, aimed to better tailor advertising.
The second thing is – there’s not exactly some IT weirdo somewhere reading through your emails and app search history, deciding what you like and what you don’t. All those things are done by computer programs, algorithms.
Turning off mobile ad tracking doesn’t really block ads. You will still be served ads, only irrelevant ones, most of the time. There will still be ads based on the device you use, the country you live in and the keywords you use in specific app searches. However, irrelevant ads drastically reduce the chance of you actually seeing something you like and clicking it. Lower click-through rates mean less earnings for the advertiser and the app you use.
Why is this important to you, you might ask?
When you look at today’s mobile consumer world (and internet for that sake) from the perspective of an average user – everything is pretty much free. But the truth is – nothing is free, and neither is the internet. Someone has to eventually pay the bill for all the free content and entertainment we consume, and the ones paying it are the advertisers.
They are sponsoring mobile apps who agree to lend their app’s real estate to host ads in return for revenue. This is what keeps apps virtually free. Advertising is a major driving force of the free app economy which sustains it financially.
Opting out of mobile ad tracking will allow you to keep your private information private. It will, however, make your mobile experience less than ideal, unless you completely block all ads in the first place. Keep in mind that ads are the lubricant for the internet, fueling the sites which give you content you enjoy consuming.
Whether you will disable mobile ad tracking is up to you – every major mobile operating system allows you to choose. Should you do it or not in the end depends on what you consider an ideal mobile experience.
How to opt-out of mobile ad tracking:
Go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising.
Turn on Limit Ad Tracking.
To turn off location-based ads, do the following:
Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services.
Turn off Location-Based iAds.
On Android 5:
Go to Settings > General > Accounts & Sync
Locate and tap on the Google listing
Tap Personal info & Privacy
Tap Ads settings
Scroll down and tap on “Manage Ad Settings”
Find the “Ads based on your interests” slider and slide to “Off”.
On Windows Phone
It is important to once again repeat that this relates only to mobile apps and not browsers. Ad networks use different methods of tracking your browser movement, mostly through placing cookies. There are methods of disabling browser-based ad tracking, but we will leave that topic for another time.