Posted January 13, 2009 5:52 pm by with 17 comments

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Naturally, privacy watchdogs answer the question in this post title with a resounding “Yes!” The answer is so emphatic, in fact, that the Center for Digital Democracy and U.S. Public Interest Research Group are filing a 52-page complaint with the FTC today alleging that mobile marketers collect so much “non personally identifiable information” that it infringes on users’ privacy—and are “unfair and deceptive.”

Mobile devices, which know our location and other intimate details of our lives, are being turned into portable behavioral tracking and targeting tools that consumers unwittingly take with them wherever they go.

(Shh! Don’t tell them the FBI can remotely turn on the microphone of several cell phone brands and convert your phone into a roving bug, even when it’s off!)

But is the Internet private—and should it be? Is a profile that states that you are interested in outdoor rec and currently in the Santa Clara, CA, area an invasion of your privacy? And if so, should we ban all outdoor rec stores and centers in Santa Clara from collecting personally identifiable information like, say, a picture of you when you walk in their lobby? Should we prohibit all employees from asking your name and if you slip and mention it, make sure they never call you by it?

Naturally, there’s a limit to how much information a mobile phone can give marketers (without some sort of lead gen input):

As with PC-based behavioral targeting, mobile marketing companies do not typically collect names, phone numbers, email addresses or other so-called personally identifiable information.

But advocates say the information gathered is so detailed that it poses a threat to privacy. “They don’t need to know a name to know that Mobile User ‘X’ likes to search for fast food, bought a new car recently, and went on the mobile phone looking for a lower-interest credit card,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Who, exactly, doesn’t need to know that? Marketers for fast food companies, car insurance companies or credit card companies? It’s automatically a bad thing for someone who might have a pecuniary interest in getting something you like in front of your eyes know what you like?

So what are they hoping to accomplish? Well, the complaint says that they want the FTC to look into behavioral and geographic targeting in mobile marketing, and require mobile marketers to use opt-ins and to disclose to users how their information is going to be used. Presently, text-message (SMS) marketing is opt-in, but other forms of mobile marketing, such as search and display, aren’t.

Ultimately, however, it seems that privacy advocates are hoping for a world where we can be safely anonymous online, whether we access the Internet from our computers or our phones. But remember, in this world, advertising is no more targeted or helpful than it is on, say, television.

If you’re tired of seeing commercials for Viagra, too bad. It’d be an invasion of your privacy for these companies to know, for example, that you’re a 25-year-old single woman (not their target market, but hey—maybe you know someone with ED? Your dad? (Ew.)) and you’d actually appreciate a coupon for a local Thai restaurant right about now. Nope, the closest they can get is that hey, you’re looking at a website about Law & Order; can we interest you in some investments with in a TD Ameritrade banner with Sam Waterston’s picture on it?

Oh, wait—in most online circles, isn’t blanketing wide audiences with marketing messages that they’re not interested in widely considered spam?

What do you think—is mobile behavioral and geotargeting an invasion of your privacy?
Take our poll!

(For whatever reason, in the poll below, the radio button for the corresponding choice may appear immediately above the description of the choice. User-friendly design FTW!)

  • Wii

    I am not sure about intruding on your privacy. The only way they would do that would be if they took your text messages and dissected them to give you tailored ads sort of like sites that offer ads dependant on your search terms

  • coldbrew

    The idea is that consumers should be able to make an informed choice about which information can and will be shared/ used. In the US, it should not be possible if the person is under the age of 13. It is not unreasonable to ask for full disclosure and I would like to have an awareness campaign for the less informed (I have some friends that are clueless about these things).

    I use opera for all my web-based accounts (gmail I use IMAP).

    Firefox to browse with NoScript/AdBlock

    Scroogle to search.

    Call me paranoid, but as an adult I feel obligated to minimize my actions being tracked; most people are lazy and uniformed.

    Disclosure: We have a side project we hope to turn into a company one day that protects people’s commercial activity as it is valuable and should not be given away for free. Potential investors weren’t interested because they don’t see any demand.

  • Honestly, as long as the informatoin is stored anonymously and not tied to you, it should be fine. The fact that the person who owns this phone has these attributes doesn’t immediately indict you. I’d rather things be better targeted to me than get annoying spam because i wanted “privacy”

  • PS3

    I’m not sure I agree with all the comparatives between internet and mobile marekting.

    If you land on a page advertising products you would rather not see, you can click on. In the same way you can change channel if a TV ad isn’t too your liking.

    Mass advertising is spam, which is a different matter.

    Mobile advertising is nothing like that (not in my experience to date, anyway)

  • Privacy concerns will always be top of the list when it comes to mobile marketing for me. Targeted ads do make a lot of sense to advertisers, but how much information is always the question that begs to be answered. Anything you do could be used against you at some stage, so call me paranoid if you like, but I like to keep my online behaviour as private as possible.

  • Yes, this is a really bad idea. I think we all want a little more control over what information people can use about us to ‘display’ ads. Regardless, its always a bit of an inconvenience anyway, regardless of whether or not the ad is relevant.

    Shirley’s last blog post..Firefox 2 on Mac: jQuery Anti-Aliasing/Opacity Bug

  • What I don’t like is when they get your information and use it to bug you or in wrongful ways. Public information like you picture and name are not private and if you go into a store, I do not believe that a company should have to get rid of all images of people in their store. Seems kind of ridiculous and too hard to do.

    Patrick’s last blog post..New Toy Safety Law Not So Green?

  • The Patriot Act has kind of opened the doors for the government to infringe on your privacy rights. Perhaps, the new administration will take a look at this and offer a more practical idea that balances both protection needs and privacy rights.

  • Anything that collects and uses data about me without my permission is invasion of my privacy.

    Nicole Price’s last blog post..Good Deals on Hair Products

  • I’d like to think that it’ll be cool to live in a future with ads like those in the movie Minority Report. Targeted ads are the way to go. I’d prefer someone to offer me something I might want compared to viagra or cialis or whatever spammers offer.

  • The real question is: Does behavioral marketing infringe upon your privacy?

    Utah SEO Pro’s last blog post..An Interview with Utah SEO Pro (Jordan Kasteler) by Martin Bowling

  • Wii

    I think there will be plenty more discussion regarding this and probably plenty of legal talk and action. Some people will believe this is harmless and others will believe it is against every rule of privacy in the book. I personally would rather see targetted ads that are to my tastes rather than any ad you get sent like I do at home.

  • LOL, privacy on the net? Yeah right, that is an oxymoron isn’t it? I mean the WWW cannot be private and in actuality the Internet makes the world much smaller and each day takes away more and more privacy. Mobile marketing for me is just a pain, I have to delete those messages when I get them

    JR @ Internet Marketing Do-Follow Blog’s last blog post..Internet Marketing for Bums – Make Money with Zero Start-Up

  • Read the link to the roving bug issue. Apparently it can be avoided if your wrap your phone in tin foil. Big problems, simple answers.

  • Does milk carton marketing infringe on your privacy?

  • Pingback: Mobile Marketing for Restaurants – Does it Go Too Far? | On A Wait()

  • A cell phone is not the place to advertise. There is a place and time, and that isn’t it