So what's wrong with being tracked by advertisers?

Companies are getting more aggressive about using your phone to track you. So what?

A London startup has equipped 12 public recycling bins in the city to track passersby via their smartphones. The bins display advertising that's customized for each phone tracked. You know, like in Minority Report.

Not only do they not have the option to opt in, the tracked pedestrians aren't even notified that they're being tracked. In an early test, the devices tracked more than 750,000 individual phones in a 24-hour period.

Here's how it works: The bins are called "Renew Pods," and they're supplied by a small company called Renew, which has 200 such bins all over London displaying HD news and ads. Recently, 12 of these bins in London's Square Mile business district were "upgraded" with "Renew ORB" devices, which are designed by a London-based company called Presence Aware to seek out smartphone MAC addresses to identify individual phones. The tracking system determines how close the phone is to the bin, how fast the user is moving, what direction the user is heading and what brand the phone is.

The tracking of people using recycling bins is merely a test. The company has for some time worked with clients to install "Presence ORBs" in various stores. These identify similar kinds of data, and also record the fact that the person entered the store (and how long the person stayed there).

By combining Renew ORB and Presence ORB data, the company can now track which routes are taken between participating stores. This not only makes it possible to show ads based on an individual's past shopping behavior; it also enables the company to know which ads the person may have seen. Having that capability, it can approach other retailers with strong data about the types of people who pass by their stores every day.

The CEO of Renew, Kaveh Memari, told an online publication recently that the company is working on a deal to install tracking devices in key locations in a bar, including near the bathrooms. By monitoring which phones entered which bathroom, the Renew database could determine the gender of individual consumers.

Remember: Once the company pegs an individual's gender in its database, the system will remember the gender when it detects that person walking past one of the Renew Pod recycling bins.

Personal data collection is often cumulative. And I'm sure companies will think of other tricks to tease personal data out of everyday trackable behavior.

What will Google do?

Google, for example, is hatching what is probably the most broad-based set of programs for tracking your location. And it's really good at it.

Google offers an app called My Tracks for Android, which has been recently updated with very precise location-tracking capability. The app keeps a record of every place you go and how fast you move. It even captures elevation data. The captured data can be uploaded to Google Earth to show the routes you walked, ran or hiked on a detailed map.

Google recently added location-based advertising back to its mobile Google Maps app for iOS and Android. The ads appear on the bottom of the screen and include one-tap access to directions for travelling to the advertised location. Users can also save or share the advertiser information. If advertisers pay for it, users can also "click to call" and also "get location details."

These ads, of course, are related to Maps search. So if you open maps and search for "coffee," the ad will show you a nearby coffee shop owned by a paid advertiser.

The ad placement feature replaces the previous functionality, in which the top hits for Maps searches were nonpaid results.

Google recently revealed that Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) will be able to scan for Wi-Fi networks, even when the Wi-Fi feature is turned off. The Wi-Fi scan-only mode, called "Scanning always available," is designed to conserve battery power because it enables location features without using the battery-hogging GPS chip, and also because it's not connecting you to Wi-Fi networks for user-data transfer, theoretically. The feature can be turned off under the "Advanced" menu in the Wi-Fi settings.

The recently announced Moto X phone, which is the first phone developed by Motorola since Google bought the company, has an entire chip designed to keep location tracking on while consuming minimal battery power. It even tracks the phone when it's in a deep sleep mode.

Everybody's doing it

The major handset makers and mobile operating system developers seem to all share a common desire to track you all the time.

Apple's upcoming iOS 7 will apparently have a feature that keeps track of each user's "Frequent Locations." The feature can be turned off in the Locations part of the Settings.

Location-based social networking is often associated with Foursquare, which was the first "check-in" app to go mainstream. Recently, Foursquare announced that it intends to sell users' location data to an advertising company called Turn, meaning advertising directed at individual Foursquare users could be generated outside of the Foursquare app.

Those ads would appear on phones, tablets and even desktop PCs and would include display and even video ads. Facebook is a partner of Turn, so if you're using Foursquare you can expect to see ads on Facebook targeted at you because of locations from which you've checked in at in the past.

People have been talking about location-based mobile advertising for a long time. Only recently has there been any real innovation coming online.

A company called UberMedia combines online social activity with location history to predict what kinds of products people might like. The company recently ran a campaign that determined that people who followed New York Knicks players on Twitter, or whose location history showed outdoor activity, must be in the market for sneakers. So whenever those users were near stores that sell athletic shoes, they got ads directing them to those stores.

A company called AdNear is like other location-based advertising companies, but with one killer twist: It doesn't rely on GPS for location data. Instead, it has painstakingly mapped the locations of cell towers and Wi-Fi routers, and determines location by triangulating those. One benefit of this approach is that it works indoors and in big cities where GPS signals might be limited.

Some companies are indeed taking advantage of the growing number of ways we can be tracked via our smartphones.

That sound you don't hear is the consumer backlash that isn't happening

A new smartphone case designed to thwart such tracking just met its Kickstarter crowd-funding goal this week. But I wonder how it will fare in the marketplace.

The case, called OFF Pocket, was described by one of my social media followers as "a tinfoil hat for your phone."

The concept is simple: No matter what your phone's settings are, no Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, Bluetooth, RFID, GPS or NFC wireless signal can reach your phone because it will be physically blocked by the materials OFF Pocket is made with: "metalized fibers."

But OFF Pocket and products like it face an uphill battle. The truth is that consumers are generally happy to be tracked, as long as there's a perceived benefit to them.

In a recent survey sponsored by YP, a search, media and advertising company, 61% of the mobile phone users polled said that they give permission for mobile apps to access their "current location." (A recently spun-off former division of AT&T, YP is the company behind YellowPages.com.)

The bottom line of all this tracking is that location data harvested from your phone will be used like cookies are with desktop Web browsing. The "real world" will work like the online world, in which your activities will result in highly targeted ads.

The knee-jerk impulse may be panic in some quarters, so let me ask an obvious question: So what?

What's wrong with being tracked for the purpose of giving companies the ability to direct relevant advertising at you?

After all, the alternative to good ads (the ones promoting things you actually want to buy) isn't zero ads. The alternative is bad ads -- constant sales pitches for stuff you don't want. (Another name for unwanted advertising is spam.)

Don't get me wrong -- there are privacy considerations to be reckoned with. But isn't the best way forward to grapple with those issues while learning to accept highly relevant, location-based contextual advertising?

I don't want my private location information falling into the hands of crooks, con artists, identity thieves or a Constitution-violating government. But I do want to live in a world where the advertising I see more accurately reflects the goods and services I would want to buy.

What's wrong with that?

This article, "So What's Wrong With Being Tracked by Advertisers?" was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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