Several startups are experimenting with technologies that could completely overhaul the way connected devices are targeted and tracked.
Using new products from companies like BlueCava and Ringleader Digital, advertisers will be able to link and track individual consumers on their mobile phones, desktop PCs, tablet devices, games consoles, TVs - even their cars - and serve them ads based on activity across those devices.
They will do so using a process often referred to as device fingerprinting, an emerging device identification technique which could eventually replace the cornerstone of online measurement and data collection, the cookie.
When a connected device accesses content or services, it transmits bits of information about its properties and settings. For example, a smartphone might communicate details of which operating system and browser versions it's running, its time zone, and which carrier network it’s using, to name but a few.
These individual signals can be collected and pieced together to form a unique, persistent "fingerprint" for that specific device. That fingerprint can then be assigned an identifying number, and used for similar purposes as a cookie, such as ad targeting, frequency capping, and other forms of tracking.
Replacing the Cookie
The technology applies not only to mobile devices, however, but also to desktop computers, tablet devices, and potentially any device with a data connection.
"Our ultimate goal is to replace the cookie," David Norris, BlueCava's chairman and CEO, told ClickZ. "Cookies are temporary tattoos that fade away, but [fingerprints] don't fade away. Cookies had their point in time, but we've moved far enough along for a more sophisticated system now."
Fingerprints, however, track devices themselves, rather than the cookies placed on them. Even if the characteristics of a device change, its fingerprint is simply updated to reflect those changes. If, for example, a user upgrades his browser, the device can still be uniquely identified using other characteristics, and its fingerprint is simply altered to reflect the changes.
To illustrate the process Norris used an analogy of a person walking into a small grocery store two days in a row. The second time the person visits the store he might have changed his shirt, but the storeowner will still recognize him based on other characteristics such as height, hair color, and numerous other variables. In theory, just as no two shoppers are the same, neither are two devices.
Based on this principle, Norris said BlueCava's technology can uniquely identify a device 99.9 percent of the time using around 50 pieces of data broadcast from a desktop browser.
Mobile Devices, Tracking and Targeting
Besides desktop computers, fingerprinting technology has arguably more potential for mobile and tablet devices, which typically can't be tracked easily using cookies.
In light of that opportunity, Ringleader Digital has developed a similar technology to BlueCava, but is focusing its efforts squarely on the mobile ad market. Dubbing its Media Stamp product "the mobile equivalent of the desktop cookie," it can be used for similar purposes such as frequency capping, conversion tracking, and potentially behavioral and data-driven media buying opportunities also.
"We can uniquely and persistently identify the top 100 U.S. devices 100 percent of the time," Bob Walczak, CEO of Ringleader Digital, told ClickZ. "The issue in mobile has been that third party cookies work on less than 60 percent of devices, based on our testing. This is because the carriers strip them off at the gateway, the devices can't accept them, or they are shipped with third-party cookies turned off. There are so many different, fragmented market standards, so our aim was to create a single, simple solution," he said.
Ringleader has positioned itself as a technology provider, licensing its wares to publishers, ad networks, ad servers, and essentially any party with a use for them. Meanwhile stealth startup TapAd is in the process of developing a similar solution, but plans to focus more heavily on the direct provision of real-time bidded, data-driven opportunities for advertisers.
Tying Together Multiple Devices
Owing to the fact that a fingerprint can effectively last for the lifetime of a device, BlueCava's Norris described opportunities to identify relationships between numerous individual devices.
For example, if an e-commerce bookstore is using BlueCava's technology it can tie the unique fingerprint of a desktop PC to information about its user's behavior on the site, such as the books he or she viewed recently. If that user then signs into her account from a mobile device, the user could be served information on books tailored to her specific interests and past behaviors.
Of course, that type of customization is already possible through the use of login and account data, but once a user signs in from both devices BlueCava could assume a permanent relationship between the fingerprints of the two devices, whether they are logged in or not. In theory the bookstore could then serve ads to that user's desktop machine anywhere across the Internet, based on the last mobile browser session.
In another scenario the bookseller may choose to share that data with a third party which might also benefit from being aware of the association, such as a footwear retailer, for example. If the user visits the footwear retailer's mobile site, it could subsequently advertise to the user's desktop even though that machine has never interacted with its own site directly.
That capability could also aid cross-channel conversion attribution. For example, if the user transacts on a desktop, the advertiser may conclude that the purchase intent can be traced back to the user's initial ad view on a mobile device.
According to Norris, the multi-device opportunities aren't limited to mobile devices, desktops and tablets. He suggests any number of connected devices have the potential to be tracked and linked through fingerprints. The company is already exploring possibilities surrounding video games consoles and TV sets, and Norris suggests the same principle could even be applied to the systems embedded in cars.
In theory, BlueCava's technology could eventually be used to link and track your cellphone, desktop PC, tablet device, games console, TV, and car, and serve ads based on your activity on any or all of those devices.
Fingerprinting and Device Data
This concept of data sharing is a key part of BlueCava's offering, through what it calls the Device Reputation Exchange. Using a similar model to cookie-based data vendors such as BlueKai and eXelate, BlueCava's partners are invited to share their knowledge of each fingerprint's behaviors, effectively building up a profile specific to each device.
Advertisers can then dip into that pool and use the data to buy media on a real-time basis via ad exchanges and demand side platforms.
However, the advantage of using fingerprints versus cookies is their longevity and persistence, which enables richer and more thorough behavioral data sets to be tied to the devices, alongside the relationship data described above.
As a result, the technology could enable advertisers to buy audience-based media with increased confidence compared to existing cookie-based solutions across numerous platforms and devices.
According to Norris, BlueCava has identified "hundreds of millions of devices" to date, and expects to have identified over one billion devices by the end of the year. Each of the existing device fingerprints is already tied to some form of data in the Reputation Exchange.
Opting out and Privacy Implications
Both BlueCava and Ringleader offer consumers the opportunity to opt out of tracking and targeting, as do most major cookie-based technology providers. As government concerns surrounding online data collection continue to escalate, the prospect of a new tracking tool is likely to be heavily scrutinized.
According to Norris and Walczak however, opting out of fingerprint tracking is more effective than the cookie-based opt-outs currently being promoted by industry self-regulatory efforts such as the Digital Advertising Alliance.
Owing to the fact that a fingerprint lasts for the lifetime of a device, a user need only opt the device out once for it to be opted out forever, Norris said. Cookie-based opt-outs, meanwhile, last only for the lifetime of that cookie, which can be deleted or moved, and effectively opt the user back in as a result.
Norris suggested, therefore, that his company's technology already satisfies the "do-not track" principles currently being explored by the FTC, since it allows users to opt out of both tracking and targeting independently.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.
March 19, 2014