RealTime IT News

GPS-Based Mobile Ads: Where Does Privacy Fit?

BOSTON -- Just as in real estate, the mobile world is increasingly realizing the value of location, location, location.

But while the housing market wrestles with woes stemming from the subprime mortgage implosion, vendors of location-based services (LBS) for messaging, marketing and advertising are struggling to overcome their own obstacles.

Chief among these is consumer privacy in a highly connected and always-available mobile environment. Wireless carriers already know, more or less, where their subscribers are. Now advertisers are getting the tools to easily piece together a profile based on mobile Web surfing and online activities from increasingly powerful Web-based phones. Not surprisingly, many consumers aren't thrilled at the prospect.

"Most people surveyed view mobile advertising as creepy," said M.J. Nash, chief strategy officer at LBS applications developer WanderSmart. In Japan, for example, a large number of people consider onboard GPS technology and tools as downright invasive, she said yesterday while speaking on a panel discussion here at Mobile Internet World in Boston.

Privacy worries are also top of list at Ringleader Digital, an online and mobile advertising agency that can create campaigns that can target individuals by ZIP code, mobile phone position, friends and nearby points of interest.

"The whole focus has been on layering GPS in virtually any type of content, and taking that location awareness down to the content level," Bob Walczak, Ringleader Digital's founder and CEO, said during a panel. The company's ad servers act like decision engines, figuring out when and what advertising messages to send to individuals based on ad category, time of day, the user's GPS-derived location and search query keywords they may have entered.

This can create challenges for retailers and others worried about overstepping the line between useful messaging and annoying spam, according to Craig Harper, founder and CEO of mobile applications developer Apisphere. It can also create bad blood in customer satisfaction if the mobile advertising isn't viewed as helpful -- or even wanted.

So, how do you prevent problems when the rules of the game are still in flux? One way is to add extra layers of protection and accountability, so a consumer doesn't have to worry too much about privacy or security.

In some cases, the industry is working to provide tools simply keep track of the privacy policies and terms of use that are frequently sent out by companies, and will alert consumers if data is being channeled to other parties without prior consent. One of these tools is the MobileHarbor Gateway from WanderSmart, which helps users manage and keep informed of the privacy nuances of each of the location-based mobile services to which they subscribe.

"It's really a privacy gateway," Nash said. "It lets you know what service providers are doing with your information and whether it is being transferred to a third party, so you can make an informed decision."

Another way to beef up privacy is to improve the search and decision engine technologies to sharpen the focus of mobile ads and information.

Traditional search engines aren't enough to find out where a person is and what they want and then drive information to that person, according to Bob Warren, vice president of products at MetaCarta, a geographic search and intelligence company that spent its early years doing government-related projects.

The company, which evolved from an MIT doctoral physics project, has developed a way to tie together geographic mapping, content and even images they may be viewing on their devices. The result is a richer profile of the who, what and where of a consumer -- suitable for targeting ads in mobile content. Current customers include Reuters, National Geographic and local newspaper groups.

"It's all about looking where a person is and then driving information to that person," Warren said.