Mobile ads that track you across screens

12 Dec 2012

We hear more and more about the idea of multi-screen culture, in which users will expect more and more of their content to be available seamlessly on their smartphones, tablets, laptops and TV sets. That creates a dilemma for mobile advertisers who are struggling just to keep up with targeting users on just one device.

A US startup called Drawbridge aims to resolve that dilemma by helping advertisers track potential customers between devices – and doing so without compromising privacy concerns.

Drawbridge – founded by Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, an information-theory scientist whose resumé includes AdMob both before and after Google purchased it – crunches anonymous data via statistical methods to track users across different devices.

For example, she tells Technology Review, if you visit a retailer’s web site on your home PC, Drawbridge could serve a targeted ad to your smartphone the next day based on that visit.

The technology essentially matches devices to create anonymous user profiles that allows Drawbridge to buy ads for its customers (such as online retailers). And it does that by examining cookie data that comes from a device’s browser into an ad exchange and using an algorithm to analyze the odds that they come from the same person, TRreports:

The Web cookies that Drawbridge uses contain anonymous, relatively benign information, such as the browser client, the site accessed, and a time stamp. Unlike a method known as device fingerprinting, Drawbridge doesn’t rely on technologies that directly track user activity, or report geolocation or other invasive device identifiers, Sivaramakrishnan says.

“We are triangulating the user’s behavior,” says Sivaramakrishnan. “As we observe the user, we are able to hone in.” Once they reach a threshold of certainty that two cookies represent the same person, they call it a match.

The question, of course, is whether Drawbridge profiles are anonymous enough for users, or perhaps too anonymous for the tastes of advertisers that see location data as a key component of the mobile ad paradigm. Meanwhile, Sivaramakrishnan says she is working with five of the biggest mobile game companies and three top online travel agencies.

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