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On Thursday morning, I listened to an interview with the CEO of “a big data intelligence company” called Dstillery; it “demystifies consumers’ online footprints” to target them with ads. The CEO told public radio program Marketplace something astounding: his company had sucked up the mobile device ID’s from the phones of Iowa caucus-goers to match them with their online profiles.

Via Marketplace:

“We watched each of the caucus locations for each party and we collected mobile device ID’s,” Dstillery CEO Tom Phillips said. “It’s a combination of data from the phone and data from other digital devices.”

Dstillery found some interesting things about voters. For one, people who loved to grill or work on their lawns overwhelmingly voted for Trump in Iowa, according to Phillips.

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What really happened is that Dstillery gets information from people’s phones via ad networks. When you open an app or look at a browser page, there’s a very fast auction that happens where different advertisers bid to get to show you an ad. Their bid is based on how valuable they think you are, and to decide that, your phone sends them information about you, including, in many cases, an identifying code (that they’ve built a profile around) and your location information, down to your latitude and longitude.

Yes, for the vast majority of people, ad networks are doing far more information collection about them than the NSA–but they don’t explicitly link it to their names.

So on the night of the Iowa caucus, Dstillery flagged all the auctions that took place on phones in latitudes and longitudes near caucus locations. It wound up spotting 16,000 devices on caucus night, as those people had granted location privileges to the apps or devices that served them ads. It captured those mobile ID’s and then looked up the characteristics associated with those IDs in order to make observations about the kind of people that went to Republican caucus locations (young parents) versus Democrat caucus locations. It drilled down farther (e.g., ‘people who like NASCAR voted for Trump and Clinton’) by looking at which candidate won at a particular caucus location….

For most ads you see on web browsers and mobile devices, there is an auction among various programmatic advertising firms for the chance to show you an ad. We are one of those buyers, and we are sent a variety of anonymous data, including what kind of phone you have, what app you are using, what operating system version you’re running, and sometimes – crucially for this study – your latitude and longitude (lat/long).
We identified the caucusing locations prior [to] the Iowa caucus and told our system to be on the lookout for devices that report a lat/long at those locations during the caucus.

So when we received an ad bid request that our system recognized as being at one of the caucus sites, our system flagged that request and captured that device ID so we could use it for this.

This is roughly equivalent to exit polling for the smart phone age.

Turn off GPS unless using it, turn on add blockers, and use a VPN.