Major online ad providers AOL and Microsoft are to use device fingerprinting technology from Ringleader Digital, which could enable them to track and target ads served to mobile and tablet devices more effectively.
Ringleader describes its Media Stamp offering - which both companies are in the process of implementing - as "the mobile equivalent of an online cookie." The product uses technology often referred to as device fingerprinting, which enables connected devices to be tracked for purposes including ad reporting and acquisition tracking, as well as behavioral ad targeting.
AOL and Microsoft both refused to comment on their relationships with Ringleader. The company's customer base has included WhitePages.com, The Travel Channel, and Merriam-Webster to date.
According to Ringleader - and other companies such as BlueCava that provide similar technology - fingerprinting has the potential to change the way ads are targeted to smartphones and other connected devices. Some believe it could replace the cookie-based tracking methods currently employed by the majority of online ad providers.
When sending or receiving data, connected devices transmit pieces of information about their properties and settings, which can be collected and pieced together to form a unique, persistent "fingerprint" for that specific device.
Once a device has been assigned a fingerprint, advertisers can track its behavior as it moves across the web, providing similar functionality to a cookie. The strength of a fingerprint is that it tracks the device itself rather than the cookie placed on it, meaning it cannot be deleted or lost, and could potentially remain consistent for the life of a device.
The practice has raised concerns among some privacy advocates, who argue it enables companies to build up extremely detailed behavioral profiles on individual users. In addition, users are unable to erase fingerprint information themselves as they currently can with cookie-based tracking methods.
Ringleader has already found itself on the receiving end of a class action suit brought late last year in reference to its Media Stamp product. (It opted to settle out of court last month.) The suit referred to the company's alleged abuse of HTML5 database storage on the iPhone and the iPad, through which it is accused of planting tracking IDs on users' devices, often without their knowledge.
Speaking with ClickZ News last month, Ringleader Digital CEO Bob Walczak said the suit revolved around the fact that the company did not clearly label these database ID's, or indicate that users needed to restart their handsets after deleting them to completely remove them from their devices.
"It's never fun to have a lawsuit filed against you, but we learned we have to be a lot more transparent," Walczak said at the time. The HTML5 database tracking method differs technically from fingerprinting, but both practices are rolled into the company's Media Stamp product.
According to Walczak the fact that the company's existing clients stuck with it despite the lawsuit demonstrates that its practices are both ethical and transparent. The company offers users a tracking opt-out on its website, and now required all clients to have their mobile ad programs certified by itself to ensure they adhere to its data privacy and opt-out policies.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.
March 19, 2014