In Next Phase: Web Tracking Cookies Grow Legs

It’s easy to focus on the low hanging fruit in the Internet of Things revolution – the Internet-connected thermostats, connected vehicles and lawn sprinklers that you can manage from the Web.

Minority Report Shopping Trip
Will web tracking cookies soon follow your movements in the physical world, too?


But the biggest changes are yet to come – as powerful, wearable technology, remote sensors and powerful data analytics combine to map and record our every waking (and sleeping) moment.

I got a glimpse of that reading this article over at the blog, a site that concentrates on the hyperlocal marketing sector.

Hyperlocal was a big thing about six or seven years ago, as online media outfit (and their advertisers) decided that consumers were losing interest in the thin gruel that online mass-media provided, but remained intensely interested in local news and affairs.

Alas, capitalizing on the relatively small-scale opportunities in ‘hyperlocal’ proved harder than anyone thought, as this week’s decision to shutter AOL’s remaining Patch web sites underscored. But the article proposes that the real value of hyperlocal is yet to come, and that  Internet of Things technology will be the difference between failure and wild success. The difference: making hyperlocal about locating people in place and time, rather than simply pitching them on local businesses and events using the same old (Web) tools.

Among the startups mentioned in the StreetFight are Waze, the Israeli mapping company Google purchased in 2013, which taps data from mobile devices to do super-accurate mapping, and Placed of Seattle, which does location analytics for the retail sector.

The big idea is that companies start collecting the data we passively generate simply by moving through the physical world (or “meatspace” as its sometimes referred to, derisively). As StreetFight notes “the key…is that the person — not the place — is the organizing unit.” Rather than merely knowing that you shopped at Target, advertisers want to look at a seamless portrait of all the stores they’ve visited, for how long and how that correlates to activity online. 

The end result may be something akin to the ubiquitous web site tracking “cookie” – but for the real world. StreetFight notes that startups like xAd, Verve Mobile, and JiWire have built products to collect location profiles of users in a way that isn’t (too) invasive. These might reside on sensor-rich mobile devices or – even better – wearable alternatives like Google Glass.

We’ve already talked about the way that wearable tech will provide a whole new level of intimacy to data collection, because it benefits from being able to locate what the wearer is focusing on, or attending to. Companies like CrowdOptic are already investigating ways to leverage gaze awareness and kiss the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” goodbye. 

But these advances will come with huge privacy challenges. Researchers have already shown how facial recognition software can be combined with web-based search and social networking data to pick individuals out of a crowd. The rich flood of data coming from wearable technology and mobile devices – while valuable to companies and consumers – might end up seeming like a Faustian bargain.

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