Cross-device tracking

Explainers

Cross-Device Tracking from Laptop to Phone

June 4th, 2020

If you think switching from one device to another makes you less track-able, then you haven’t heard about cross-device tracking.

You are already aware that when you’re online, companies are trying to learn all about you and what you’re doing. Most of the time, they’re looking for better ways sell you things that you might need as well as things you definitely don’t. That’s tracking. Cross-device tracking is, as they say, on another level. But you can beat it.

How It Works

Companies aim to keep track of a person’s internet activity from their phone to tablet to laptop and desktop computer, compiling all of this disparate data into a single complex profile.

You might think that what you do on your phone is distinct from what you do on your desktop computer in the home office. But financial incentives drive companies to bridge that gap. A business will want to know how well its marketing campaigns are working, for one. It will also be interested in learning if an ad you saw on your smartphone resulted in you making a purchase with your desktop computer later that day, or vice versa.

Since cross-device tracking undermines digital privacy, it’s in your best interest to be aware of the practice and to learn about some ways to defend against it.

It seems logical that you should be able to evade tracking by marketing firms by using multiple devices. But think of your social media accounts. If you are logged into Facebook on your laptop as well as on your desktop computer, the social networking giant will be able to figure out that the smartphone and desktop are being used by the same person, as noted by a report from Digiday.

Apps on your smartphone keep track of your physical location throughout the day, such as to see if you are going into brick and mortar establishments to make a purchase (the app might even present you with a coupon when you get within a certain distance of a particular store).

Websites and apps enable second-party tracking (beyond the company that first started tracking you) by applying a unique identifier, as noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation

What You Can Do About It

Steps you can take to prevent such cross-device tracking include using your smartphone’s settings to reset the device’s advertising ID (which is like deleting cookies in your browser). It’s also a good idea to prevent apps from tracking you, which you can set on a per-app basis in options as well. Log out of social media accounts when not using them, to keep from broadcasting your interests while browsing online.

The use of cross-device tracking should make you more cautious about exposing information online with marketers. It’s clear that parents will need to be proactive about managing the security on the family’s electronic devices, from smartphones to tablets to laptops and desktop computers. Using techniques such as clearing cookies on a regular basis, refraining from sharing personal information with companies and segregating activities to a particular single device (such as only doing banking on your desktop and not your smartphone) can help to preserve your privacy.

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