The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) office recently published the Cross-Device Tracking: An FTC Staff Report. It provides an interesting look behind the curtains of the current operations in cross-device data tracking and matching, and the troubling extent of consumer profiling.

The report refers to the use of “deterministic” and “probabilistic” techniques of identifying a user’s use and behavior across multiple devices (e.g., computer, laptop, cellphone, tablet, smart TV, watch, health device). A deterministic technique refers to the specific identification of a user by, for instance, logging in. A probabilistic technique involves inferring identity of a device user from non-volunteered information, such as location, IP address, or patterns of behavior.

Increasing use by advertisers and marketers of detailed compiled user behaviour profiles is becoming common. Large datasets of information, including users’ browser habits, purchases, location, and device use, are being collected and cross referenced through analytics, user behavioral profiles are being generated.

User information can be used for positive ends: enhanced user experience, seamless transactions across devices, improved fraud detection and security, and enhanced competition in the advertising arena (removal of incumbent data collection advantage); but also has a negative character: tracking is not obvious and therefore lacks transparency to the user. Probabilistic data collection may surprise the user and not be an expected practice. Users may not expect the wide scale and broad collections that are occurring.

The report recommends that companies involved in cross-device tracking:

  1. Be transparent about data collection and use practices.
  2. Provide choice mechanisms that give consumers control over their data.
  3. Provide heightened protection for sensitive information, including health, financial and children’s information.
  4. Maintain reasonable security of the collected data.