The Federal Trade Commission released a staff report on cross-device tracking, which associates multiple devices with the same consumer and links activity across devices such as smartphones, tablets, and personal computers.
Drawing upon comments and discussions from an agency-sponsored workshop held in 2015, the “Cross-Device Tracking: An FTC Staff Report” describes the technology used to track consumers across multiple Internet-connected devices, the benefits and challenges associated with it, the industry efforts to address those challenges, and the agency recommendations for best practices.
Cross-device tracking has many positive attributes, the report recognized. It provides a seamless consumer experience across multiple devices and facilitates fraud prevention efforts. However, as cross-device tracking also presents privacy challenges, the FTC said, it expressed concerns about transparency.
“Because the practice of cross-device tracking is often not obvious, consumers may be surprised to find that their browsing behavior on one device will inform the ads they see on another device,” according to the report, which also highlighted that consumers may not be familiar with the scope of tracking that occurs or the “myriad entities that have access to, compile, and share data in the tracking ecosystem.”
Also problematic for the agency: the lack of consumer choice. “Even as consumers have become savvier about making choices to opt out of traditional online tracking, some of these choices may not apply to cross-device tracking,” the FTC wrote.
The report acknowledged industry self-regulatory attempts to address cross-device tracking, most notably the guidance from the Network Advertising Initiative and the manner in which the Digital Advertising Alliance applied its principles to cross-device tracking. In addition to these efforts, the FTC provided several recommendations.
Companies engaged in cross-device tracking should: “(1) be transparent about their data collection and use practices; (2) provide choice mechanisms that give consumers control over their data; (3) provide heightened protections for sensitive information, including health, financial, and children’s information; and (4) maintain reasonable security of collected data,” the agency advised. It also recommended that companies periodically reassess their technologies and practices.
Failure to disclose cross-device tracking (not just the fact of its existence but the truthfulness of claims about the categories of data collected and the scope of any opt-out mechanisms) could violate the Federal Trade Commission Act, the report cautioned. With regard to sensitive data, companies should obtain consumer opt-in consent prior to engaging in cross-device tracking.
“While cross-device tracking provides benefits to consumers and industry, it is important that consumers are informed and able to control tracking that occurs across their devices,” the report concluded.
To read the FTC’s report, click here.
Why it matters: The release of the report could signal the agency’s intent to focus on cross-device tracking in future enforcement actions. In a concurring statement, FTC Acting Chair Maureen Ohlhausen noted that the report “does not alter the FTC’s longstanding privacy principles but simply discusses their application in the context of a new technology.”