The Intrusive Solution to the 'Multi-device Problem'

Internet retailers have a creepy new way of tracking your behavior...

Worse, you won't know they're doing it, and even if you did, you couldn't stop it.

We all know by now that technology has enabled businesses to collect detailed data about our buying habits.

No one likes this. At its worst, it's an intrusion of privacy.

Until now... one of the biggest problems for these businesses is something called the "multi-device problem."

You probably use a handful of Internet-enabled devices: A desktop computer or two, a smartphone, a tablet, etc. For Internet-based companies to get a full sense of your buying habits, they've got to figure out how to connect all those devices to the same person.

According to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Center for Democracy and Technology, more than a dozen marketing companies have recently started using inaudible audio signals to communicate between your devices.

Here's how it works... If you visit a website that's using this technology, it puts a cookie on your computer – a piece of code commonly used for tracking users. This code then plays an "audio beacon" through your speakers that you can't hear. It's silent, like a dog whistle. But the beacon transmits information that your other devices can pick up.

These beacons can communicate between a smartphone, desktop computer, or tablet and figure out that they all belong to you. Even some television commercials broadcast these noises so the companies can determine what you watch.

This technology is not disclosed to users and cannot be turned off.

One of the main providers, a company called SilverPush, is used by 67 apps and installed on 18 million smartphones. Other companies are known as Drawbridge and Flurry.

I'm generally not in favor of more government intrusion... but these companies should be required to disclose the data they collect from users. At least then, consumers would be aware of which companies are gathering this kind of information.

And a note to retailers: If you play a little more honestly and clean up your advertising, your business will get better returns. If the products you put out continue to ruin the experience of using the Internet, you'll end up in a never-ending war with ad blockers.

Many folks are already skeptical of the way businesses use the Internet to market their products.

The number of people using ad-blocking technology has risen dramatically. Currently 198 million Internet users worldwide have software that blocks ads, according to a survey from Adobe and PageFair.

Though no one really likes to sit through commercials, that's not the problem on the Internet. The problem comes from bad technology and privacy intrusions.

Junky computer code that displays ads on websites causes pages to load slowly and can crash your computer. Few people are comfortable with the undisclosed tracking like these new audio beacons (and, as of right now, ad blocking doesn't block audio beacons). In a survey of those who block ads – the same survey we mentioned above – 71% of those who use ad-blocking said they don't mind advertisements, they just don't like obtrusive and bad ads.

Check out which ad blockers exist for your browser. Many of them are free and work quite well. Common blockers include AdBlock, DoNotTrackMe, and Ghostery.

Privacy is something we need to work on for now, so take a few minutes to keep the ways you are tracked online to a minimum.

What We're Reading...


  • You Are Not a Gadget – A former Microsoft genius worries about the blurring of technology and identity...