For the low price of $1k, you can track someone’s location with mobile ads

A team of researchers from the University of Washington has figured out just how easy it is to exploit mobile advertising networks.


October 19, 2017

A team of researchers from the University of Washington has figured out just how easy it is to exploit mobile advertising networks.

Turns out, with a little time and $1k, an ad-savvy “spy can track your location and learn specific details about you, like your sexual orientation, or the kinds of apps you have on your phone.

The experiment

Using an Android phone, the researchers created a mobile banner ad and a website that served as the landing page. Then, they spent $1k to place orders on side-platforms that allow ad buyers to specify ad criteria — Facebook, Google AdWords, etc.

From there, they set their tests to appear on the ad-supported calling and texting app Talkatone. Every time a target had Talkatone open near one of his set coordinates, the ad would appear on it, allowing researchers to determine where, when, and on which phone the ad had been shown.

Okay. So what?

Ad tech has progressed to a point where it is way too easy to rig — and while society is frequently vocal about its fears of Google and Facebook spying on us, this is stuff that literally any advertiser worth his salt can pull off.  

What this shows is that with some pretty standard ad-tech and a little bit of money, anyone can spy on anyone.

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