It's hard to stop businesses tracking your smartphone

It's a lot easier to stop advertisers tracking your browsing habits online than it is to stop people sniffing out your smartphone's location.

Remember the advertising scenes from Minority Report?

You might also remember the very creepy Wi-Fi tracker bins that appeared in the City of London in August. Operated by Renew London, they tracked the smartphones that walked past them in the street. The bins had screens on them that could show ads that were theoretically tailored to the people walking past at any moment. 530,000 unique smartphones were tracked before the City pulled the plug on the initial trial over privacy concerns.

The problem here is that your smartphone isn’t connecting to a network and giving over information without your permission - it’s just broadcasting that it’s turned-on. If your Wi-Fi card is actively searching for available networks it has to tell those networks who it is, and that information is a 12-long string of letters and numbers known as a MAC address.

It’s rather like walking around with your house number and postcode written on a note, stuck to your forehead. People won’t know anything about you specifically, but with enough watchers recognising that note going from place to place you can build up a pretty good picture of the kind of person you are. Whether you prefer to shop at Tesco to Sainsbury’s; whether you’re more likely to buy chicken with wine or beef and beer; whether your interests in certain health products might mean you’re pregnant without even realising yet.

There are as many as 40 firms offering tracking services like this to stores that want to see how their customers shop, reports the Washington Post. That means where they go in the store, how long they wait at the tills, which products they cluster around, how often they visit - and which other stores they also visit. Minority Report’s eye scanners are unrealistic in their lack of ambition: they’re way more complicated than they need to be, but also not part of an integrated system.

Online advertising has been shaken up in the wake of the largest browsers introducing ‘Do Not Track’ features. When turned on, they stop adverts from placing cookies on your machine so they can follow you around the web, adjusting what they show you dependent on where you’re looking.

You can’t really do that with a smartphone’s MAC address, but several companies like this do let people enter their MAC addresses into a database manually as a kind of opt-out. It’s time-consuming, and of course it’s not particularly well advertised. Hence the need for the Wireless Registry. Here’s Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

Together with the Future of Privacy Forum, [founders Stillman Bradish and Patrick Parodi] hope to build a kind of central Do Not Call list for MAC addresses. At least in theory, consumers will be able to visit a single Web site, register their MAC addresses for free, and the major tracking companies that have committed to the project will pledge not to follow those addresses around brick-and-mortar stores. It's a form of potential self-regulation that should look familiar if you've been following the debate over online tracking, where Web browsers have begun letting users tell commercial Web sites they don't wish to be followed.

As a solution it seems a good one, but the flip-side is that it would only take one leak for a very, very valuable list of many unique smartphone identifiers to suddenly be available in the wild. It's likely that we'll see more solutions like this being suggested - both from the tech industry and from governments - as offline tracking becomes more of a privacy worry.

Each smartphone gives some stores valuable data. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Disney didn’t buy Twitter — partly because it can't master the Bare Necessities

Walt Disney Co. has decided against bidding for the social network.

Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your – @simba DIE U STUPID LION UR SONG IS SHIT.

That was a short representation of one the alleged reasons why Walt Disney Co. opted out of bidding for Twitter last night. Despite hiring two investment banks to help them weigh up a deal, Disney have dropped out of the running partly because – according to Bloomberg – of the social networks’s reputation for bullying and harassment, as well as its falling profits. Individuals close to Disney management allegedly told the business news website that Twitter did not fit well for the company, which, after all, is more famous for feel-good anthropomorphic animals than angry, anonymous eggs. 

Those who mistakenly believe Twitter is a happy place where ev’rybody wants to be a cat might need an explanation. Despite the apparent abundance of cat gifs, Twitter can be a violent and angry social network – a report last year stated that 88 per cent of the abusive mentions on social media happen on the site. Twitter has long struggled to stop abuse overwhelming discussion on the social network. This has fed the perception among some of its 300 million users that tackling abuse is a low priority, with efforts at reducing trolling overshadowed by the release of new features such as increased message length and curated news feeds known as Moments. Because of this, the site has become seen as – in one former employee’s words – “a honeypot for assholes.” Oh, bother.


Earlier this year, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was bombarded with racist tweets upon the film's release, forcing her to leave the site for a few weeks. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines," she wrote. The company did take action in the wake of the Jones case, permanently banning the prominent right-wing journalist and notorious troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, from the site for his role in fanning the flames of the abuse. But, while Google has set up a new company, Jigsaw, to make the internet a safer place, Instagram regularly bans offensive hashtags and Facebook has devoted time to constantly updating its anti-harassment tools (most recently making it easier to report revenge porn), Twitter’s trolling problem continues.

Even Twitter's former top employees have criticised the company's efforts. In a leaked memo from 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo said: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years." Earlier this year, the current CEO Jack Dorsey admitted Twitter "must do better" at dealing with abuse. Salesforce, another potential buyer, have also allegedly been put off by the site's reputation. "The haters reduce the value of the company... I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion," reported CNBC's Jim Cramer

Neither company has declared publicly that Twitter's abuse problem dettered them from the sale, but could the loss of this latest suitor push them to take the problem more seriously? Having some sort of pre-emptive anti-harassment tool has become the bare necessities of running a successful social network, but Twitter still waits for users to report abuse and then, frequently, tells them that the abusive content actually didn’t violate their rules. 

It is not too late for Twitter to turn itself around, as many of its users are still loyal despite the abuse. With one successful attempt to tackle harassment, a resurgence for the site could be just around the riverbend. In the words of the wise Rafiki: "Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it."