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Location-based advertising grows up

Shooting the mobile messenger

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Both Blyk and O2 More collect responses to better profile their customers - click on a link advertising a car and you'll get more car adverts, ignore all shoe-related ads and they'll stop arriving, but other than that they're dependent on the information voluntarily provided by the user.

That's a shame when the network operator has such a wealth of information available to it. Network operators don't just know where you are... they know everywhere you've been (and are required by EU law to remember that for 12 months). The operator also knows everyone you've called and every website you've visited over the air, not to mention the model and make of handset and the browser version you're using.

Those last bits of information are also available to the websites you visit, and to any content-optimisation service such Opera Turbo (which is part of Opera Mini, and optional in other Opera version). Optimisation services compress graphics, strip out redundant code and squeeze the most out of mobile browsing, but they can also be used to inject ads into the stream too.

Vodafone does that, using servers from Novarra (owned by Nokia these days) to append navigation bars to mobile web sites. Most operators still shy away from activating the capability, but all of them are considering it in some form or another.

Opera Turbo only injects adverts with the websites' approval - the site puts code into the page and if that page is viewed though Opera Turbo then AdMarvel (the company bought up by Opera last year) drops in an advert based on the user's location (at least country, sometimes more accurate depending in the handset and connection path), the device they're using and the current time and date. Websites can also pass additional information to AdMarvel, such as the age and sex of the user, but only if such sharing is allowed by the site's privacy policy.

One piece of information AdMarvel, and thus Opera Turbo, won't use is browsing history. AdMarvel's CEO told us: "We would only use such information if the user consented to that" – before admitting that he expected a more public debate to open up on the subject of what information companies should be allowed to use.

That debate, if it happens, could leave us happily using Phorm-like services in exchange for cheaper connectivity. The only difference between what Phorm does and what AdMarvel is doing is the use of that browsing history (skipping over Phorm's complicity in BT's quite-possibly-illegal trials of the technology, which isn't related to this debate). Customers who are happily sharing the details of their sex lives on Facebook have already made it clear they don't care if that information is used to sell them dinner for one, so why should they care if some of that data is added automatically?

Facebook knows more about its customers than most companies, but in the mobile sphere it has yet to capitalise on all that data. Facebook's various mobile incarnations don't yet carry any advertising at all, but that will no doubt change soon. And if customers are so willing to voluntarily share their geographic information, and actively take the time to do so, then it would seem to make all those clever mechanisms for automatically gathering data redundant.

We've suggested before that one might end up obliged to sign up to something like Bright Stuff or O2 More, in order to get a cheaper tariff. But now it seems you will voluntarily hand over your personal information, just so the deluge of advertising with which you'll be bombarded will at least be relevant to you.

Users, perhaps sensibly, fear automatically-gathered information much more than data they throw into the mix themselves, but before jumping to the same conclusion, it is worth taking a moment to consider who you would trust more with your personal data – a major corporation like Telefonica or Google, or yourself, 20 years ago. ®

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