Do you long to know where your wife to be goes for a coffee? Do you need to know when your wealthy neighbour has left his home unattended? All of this, and more, can be had for a relatively modest fee, and is painless (for you, the stalker), almost impossible to detect, and relatively legal, for now.
Researchers at the University of Washington set out to take advantage of a resource so commonly seen that we are almost blind to it today – internet adverts. But the “cookie wars” and increasing regulations (GDPR, Data Protection Act etc) around “opt in” tracking capabilities are still mostly powerless to prevent the almost ubiquitous use and exposure to online advertising when using our smartphones.
These adverts can expose our habits, including the types of applications we are using, for how long, and where we are when we’re using them. So if you’re looking for love on Tinder for an hour while sitting at your desk in the office, your employer and your paying clients may be interested to know.
Paul Vines, lead author of the study, noted that "anyone from a foreign intelligence agent to a jealous spouse can pretty easily sign up with a large internet advertising company and on a fairly modest budget use these ecosystems to track another individual's behaviour".
The researchers demonstrated that by purchasing a relatively small amount of online adverts they could track a person's movements across a city and remain updated of their movements approximately every 4 minutes with an accuracy of about 8 meters. The target did not have to click on or engage with the advert
Preventing Mobile Cyber Stalking
Modern smart phones increasingly provide options to “opt out” of advertiser tracking functions. The “Google” app on most Android phones offers the facility to do so, and Apple offers similar functions in its phones. Resetting the mobile advertising ID on your phone can also assist.
However, some of these advertising capabilities are embedded within common apps like Facebook and it can require tedious work to disable location tracking per app (in the privacy or permissions settings of your phone) to reduce these risks.
Unfortunately our telephones continue to present information that allow cyber stalkers to harvest our location data by other means – staying completely “off the grid” is becoming ever more difficult!
Image courtesy of ManoWar100
We did this research to better understand the privacy risks with online advertising. There's a fundamental tension that as advertisers become more capable of targeting and tracking people to deliver better ads, there's also the opportunity for adversaries to begin exploiting that additional precision. It is important to understand both the benefits and risks with technologies.