Companies Track Phone’s Movements to Target Ads to Its Owners

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Companies Track Phone’s Movements to Target Ads to Its Owners
Short Title Companies Use Signals From Phone Sensors To Monitor Physical User Behaviour For Better Ad Targeting
Location United Kingdom
Date September 2020

Solove Harm Surveillance, Exclusion
Information Behavioral, Location, Preference
Threat Actors Advertisers, NumberEight

Affected Smartphone users
High Risk Groups
Tangible Harms

NumberEight is an example of a “contextual intelligence” startup in the UK that infers user behavior from sensors in their smartphone. The startup gathers data on when a phone owner picks up their phone, or when they go out on a run, which helps companies customise ads.


Because of the stronger regulations of user online tracking in 2020, companies looking for new ways to categorize users and tailor content are turning to a new tool: physical signals from the phone itself. Companies like NumberEight are tools to help apps infer user activity based on data from a smartphone’s sensors: whether they’re running or seated, near a park or museum, driving or riding a train. That is an example of Surveillance. Most smartphones have internal components that record data on their movements. like the accelerometer (which can tell the direction one is facing) and magnetometer, which is drawn to magnetic poles. These and other sensors also power features like “raise to wake,” where the phone powers on when user picks it up, or rotating to horizontal orientation to watch a movie.

Companies like NumberEight use sensor data to categorize users. For example a service could target ads to “early risers” (as indicated by sensors noting when the phone is picked up after hours of rest) or adapt its user interface for after-work commuters (as indicated when sensors note riding a train after 5 pm). Targeting ads to a user based on their location without making the user aware of it can be seen as Exclusion. It is not obvious for the phone owners that based on information from sensors in their phone advertisers with tailor ads for them.


Threat: Netgear monitoring user behavior and movement through phone sensors
At-Risk group: Smartphone owners
Harm: Surveillance
Secondary Consequences: not known

Threat: Advertisers tailoring ads to users based on the information collected and analysed through physical sensors in their phones
At-Risk group: Smartphone owners
Harm: Exclusion
Secondary Consequences: not known

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