From social media platforms and email providers to online stores and personal services, you and your details are major commodities. Mostly with little regard for your privacy.
Advertisers and marketers don’t know who you are. But your behavior is tracked and assigned a unique identifier, called a Mobile Advertising ID (or MAID). This tiny snippet of information contains where you live, what you shop for or what you recently searched online.
Until recently, there had been very little that you could do to block your MAID in marketing campaigns. Apple somewhat put a stop to this by allowing iOS users to choose who can target them. But for criminals, if they can match the ID with a person, they stand to profit greatly.
Here’s the backstory
Normally, there would be no way for companies or advertising agencies to know who the MAID belongs to. It’s a collection of data sets, and there shouldn’t be any personally identifiable information (PII).
But through an investigation by Vice’s Motherboard, they discovered that a company offers the linking of MAIDs to their respective PII.
Motherboard posed as a potential data client and was told by the company in question that they have “one of the largest repositories of current, fresh MAIDS<>PII in the USA.” The CEO of the company boasted that all their data sets connect to each other.
This poses a huge privacy risk for everyday mobile phone users. The information that the company can link to your MAID includes:
- Full name
- Physical address
- Phone number
- Email address
- IP address, if available
“If shady data brokers are selling this information, it makes a mockery of advertisers’ claims that the truckloads of data about Americans that they collect and sell is anonymous,” Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard.
Why this matters to your privacy
The revelation that data brokers can connect advertising IDs to mobile phone users should send up a red flag for everyone. This is particularly worrisome for law enforcement officials, celebrities, or members of the security cluster.
“There are significant risks for members of law enforcement, elected officials, members of the military, and other high-risk individuals from foreign surveillance when data brokers are able to ingest data from the advertising bidstream,” explained security researcher Zach Edwards.
If you use an iOS device, you can opt out of personalized advertising through Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT). The option appeared earlier this year to stop apps from tracking your online behavior.
On your iOS device, open Settings, tap Privacy and scroll all the way down and tap Apple Advertising. To disable personalized ads, toggle the switch next to Personalized Ads to the left. You can also tap on the View Ad Targeting Information to see what information Apple has on you.
For Android users, tap Settings and navigate to Google. Tap the Ads option and toggle the switch for Opt out of Ads Personalization. When Google implements the change, advertisers will see a string of zeros instead of your Advertising ID.
“As part of Google Play services update in late 2021, the advertising ID is removed when a user opts out of personalization using advertising ID in Android Settings. Any attempts to access the identifier will receive a string of zeros instead of the identifier,” Google explained at the time.