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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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.