Location Based Advertising: Super Convenient or Big Brother in Action?

Ye Good Olde Days of Advertising… thirsty? Now you are!

Imagine yourself walking by a Starbucks. Suddenly, your phone beeps urgently, alerting you to the fact that you are in the vicinity of Starbucks!  Would you like to take a break for some coffee?

Or you are driving by Macy’s, and suddenly your phone beeps again. Did  you know that the pair of boots you browsed last week online is 10% off? Like, right now this very second, and won’t be anymore if you drive past this store! Does this sound a little bit like the visual advertisements targeting people in Minority Report? If it does, that’s because it is… albeit in a less invasive manner than retina scans. Welcome to the world of Location Based Advertising (LBA).

The process described above is what is called the “push” approach to LBA, which allows companies to target mobile users unless or until they opt out. There is another approach to this, in which mobile users can voluntarily enter their information into a search application, such as looking for a deli while visiting a city, and the app will return results with a map and even coupons for a free drink or appetizer. Yay!

LBA represents a way to market ads far more efficiently than traditional advertising, where a company’s advertising dollars go to pay big name celebrities to talk about why such and such a product is awshum. The only problem is that you, the company, have to believe and have faith that your celebrity endorsements are paying off, as you have no easy way to determine if your sales have gone up based on the millions you have just spent. Companies can now spend much less on ads that are more personalized and more effective, while, more importantly, providing tracking data to show how much these advertisements are paying off.

LBA is not going away. With advertising slowly catching up to the mobile medium, LBA is going to be big, being expected to net $15 billion by 2018. (Source) The only hangup with LBA services can be summed up in one word: Snowden.

For years the public at large did not pay much attention to how the heck their information somehow miraculously got absconded from their computers and phones and appeared into the digital atmosphere. Since the revelations of Edward Snowden, however, there is a growing awareness that this information is not lost to the ether. We now know that every single thing we do online is captured by government computers and stored in government databases, potentially forever, in the name of fighting terrorism. LBA represents the latest way for the government to know almost everything about you.

But before we go too far, it is useful to note that LBA is not a conspiracy theory. It is a conspiracy fact, that it’s a conspiracy to make money which doesn’t directly involve Big Brother. The fact is, Google’s meteoric rise is due in part to their analytics technology which can form an accurate depiction of who you are based on the websites you visit. This allows Google to target ads to you based on who their algorithms think you are. Since the advent of smartphones, you can browse from a device which gives your location to someone at all times. This is also not a conspiracy theory, it is conspiracy fact, the phone companies conspiring to use technology to make money. The simple reality is that for the phone company to support your device, provide you with internet, deliver your texts and connect your calls, it has to know where your device is. Even if you choose not to share your device location with this or that provider, app, or website, your service provider absolutely knows your device’s whereabouts (and by extension, your own) at all times. While the question of how involved the government was in producing these devices may be in the realm of conspiracy theory, that the technology works in this fashion is a matter of fact. Since Snowden, we know that the government collects all of this data from the telecoms, Google and Yahoo and any other of numerous web applications and services.

Irrespective of the motivations of developers and engineers, or how active the government may or may not be in tracking your movements, any and all information obtained by your device to target ads to you will be collected. LBA could be an awesome convenience, particularly when goodies like a coupon for this or that are involved (can you imagine the effect it would have during an event like Black Friday?), but it also allows Big Brother to take in all the information. Given the market potential, Location Based Advertising is here to stay, and, unfortunately, so is Big Brother. You win some, you lose some. It’s up to you to decide how much you lose.