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Location-shifting technology has potential to muffle marketers' geotargeting efforts

Dating application SinglesAroundMe has a patent pending for a location-shifting technology intended to help developers ease privacy concerns for consumers that has the potential to significantly change how marketers geotarget on mobile.

When it comes to technology and mobile commerce, new innovations are praised and questioned, sought after and sometimes pushed aside. This is the quandary marketers face as developers, consumers and government agencies come to loggerheads over who should know where consumers are and why.

"We believe Position-Shift, [the new technology], will be adopted not only by mobile developers but also by big mobile companies like Apple, Google and Blackberry," said Christopher Klotz, CEO of SinglesAroundMe, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. "We think this is extremely significant and we have demonstrated user adoption as Position-Shift is included in our SinglesAroundMe iPhone and Android apps.

"Advertisers will still be able to target users based on their real location through covert algorithms while still providing users with the location privacy they desire, which keeps things both relevant and useful to the user and the advertiser," he said. "Of course, a user could elect to turn them off."

Personalizing settings
Privacy and personalization are familiar concepts to mobile marketers and retailers.

With Position-Shift, consumers will control their geolocation via a macro setting on their digital devices or within applications. They will be able to choose who sees their location and opt to shift it so that it will appear they are in one place when in fact they may be miles away.

Position-Shift's covert settings will enable marketers and retailers to see consumers' actual location, unless the consumers opt to disable both the general and covert geolocation tracking functions.

As more consumers become aware of and possibly turn off covert settings that track their geolocation, marketers and retailers may have to find other ways to monitor them.

The data is depersonalized.

Location data is used to determine consumers' traffic patterns, proximity to businesses and past purchasing behavior. This helps marketers and retailers predict what shoppers want and to fix supply based on demand (see story).

SinglesAroundMe app screenshots

Controlling personal data

Carriers and platform providers such as Google and Apple use data to deliver ads that are more likely to be acted upon based on consumer relevance factors, such as location, in real time (see story).

"Enabling users to control their location sharing does indeed make this more appealing to the user while increasing relevance to the advertiser," said Asif R. Khan, founder and president of the Location Based Marketing Association, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. "It however, further segments an already small audience for the marketer.

"Advertisers care about reach and frequency, more than relevance and app developers must be able to strike the right balance here," he said. "On the plus side, the increased relevance, when combined with other data sets - such as time of day, past location history, etc. - can prove quite valuable in driving higher location-based engagement metrics for those advertisers."

Informed consumers most likely will take the time to adjust their mobile devices' geolocation settings, according to Mr. Khan.

"This is not an entirely new concept. Glympse has been enabling users to share their location with individuals and specified groups for controlled periods of time since 2008," he said. "While they are not targeting this to the dating industry, they have been providing this to companies like Verizon, BMW and others. 

Locaccino is another app that enables users to control privacy and location settings.

"The concept of controlled location sharing is also one of the aims of the Google Circles initiative," Mr. Khan said. "Essentially sharing your location with those you trust in your circle."

Understanding impact
Marketers must be aware of the fine line between using location data for consumers' benefit and making consumers feel uncomfortable by invading their privacy.

Last month, app privacy policies made headlines.

First, the United States Federal Trade Commission settled with the company that makes the Brightest Flashlight Free app, which has been installed more than 50 million times on Google Play, after charging it for deceiving consumers and not clearly stating how their geolocation information would be shared with advertising networks and other third parties.

As per the settlement, the defendants are prohibited from misrepresenting how consumers' data will be collected and shared.

Later in December, Britain's Information Commissioner's Office said about half of people surveyed did not download apps due to privacy concerns.

Both the FTC and the ICO said app privacy policies should clearly state how and why consumers' geolocation data will be collected and which data will be shared with who, and why.

"New technology is announced with excitement, privacy advocates point out the potential misuses and the cycle springs from applause for innovation to concern for Orwellian tracking," said Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, Washington. "It's the same message and if we don't learn from the past, new ideas will be disruptive.

"When News Feed for Facebook was turned on we all went ballistic and then soon we were running over to see where are friends were," he said. "We have a strong social structure that tells us what we feel comfortable with.

"The future is less about privacy and about the ethics of algorithms," he said. "If we think certain things are wrong, can we say it?s not right that we do that? Should we have laws or is it about society adapting?"

Final Take

Kari Jensen is staff writer on Mobile Marketer, New York