Navigating Location Data’s Ethical Minefield

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This blog post originally appeared on on July 19th, 2018.

Data is the lifeblood of the internet economy, and that’s unlikely to change. But questions of privacy are more frequent and louder than ever.

In an era where nearly every consumer carries a pocket-sized computer equipped with a GPS, more than half of global digital ad spending is aimed at those devices. Marketers need a grasp on what’s possible, what’s legal and, most importantly, what’s ethical when using data and consumer insights.

Following the 2016 presidential election, the marketing industry briefly examined how audience targeting may have caused the spread of deceitful content, shrugged and continued about its business. Today, everyone using sensitive consumer data has no choice but to confront the ethical quandary of selling and using this information in 2018.

Small data collection slip-ups are perhaps much more common than many marketers know, especially in the young-but-growing location data space. Preventing them requires a major educational effort that starts with major users and reaches down to even the smallest of app developers.

Location data is a large, growing and fragmented market where speed and scale are largely incentivized over transparency, quality and, unfortunately, ethical rigor. Earlier this year, a study found that thousands of popular children’s apps available through the Google Play store likely tracked underage users unknowingly, including their location. If those apps packaged that data and shared it with a vendor who in turn resold the data, then anyone using that data set could be breaking the law without knowing it.

That’s an extreme case, but there are many unanswered questions. For example, what is Amazon entitled to do with the location data it collects from a mobile device, if the consumer doesn’t know it was collected?

Do consumer brands know or ask about the origins or composition of the location data they’re buying? Can small app makers focused on product development and user experience also act as privacy experts?

In most cases, apps aren’t trying to profit off of breaking the law – they simply lack education on the issues. As a whole, marketers and the data providers need to ensure that the information they have is collected properly, via a disclosure, and that it can actually be used, legally, for location-based insights and intelligence.

Transparency must be clear throughout the process: Users must know what they are agreeing to, sellers must provide details about data composition, and buyers must agree to terms of use.

Many buyers don’t know what goes into the location data they buy. It may be surprising to learn that what makes it to the open market is usually blended and often aged. In other words, it may lack the pinpoint accuracy that draws many marketers to location data in the first place, and it may not be useful for certain campaigns.

There are, of course, marketers who mine their own location data and are confident in their sets. When marketers can harmonize those insights with other consumer data before running it through ad buying platforms, the location data can be extremely powerful. But processing multiple data sets together paints a detailed picture of a consumer, and users may not be interested in that. It makes sense for anyone using location data to operate as if GDPR compliance applies in every nation, meaning consumers must give consent and be guaranteed a path to resolution when they’re dissatisfied with how their data is used.

If anything, a discussion of the ethics of using location data requires an examination of why the data is necessary. Many marketers like to buy the next shiniest thing to prove they are on the cutting edge, but the purchase comes before the campaign plan.

There is a clear hunger for location data that can be used for marketing and advertising, and most marketers want to use this data in the most ethical ways possible. Asking a few questions about how the data was collected, what went into it and how it will be used will help marketers avoid location-based ad scandals.


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