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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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.