The Benefits and Perils of Cross-Device Tracking

cross-device tracking

New insights are available by tracking across devices, but new regulations may also apply.

Given the explosion in the use of smartphones and tablets, many organizations struggle to track users as they move from device to device. This inability to match multiple devices to an individual can degrade the customer experience and ultimately result in loss of revenue. There's also the threat of fraud when organizations don't know the true identities of visitors to their site. That's where cross-device tracking comes into play. Using information provided by a user or gathered from their devices behind-the-scenes, organizations connect multiple devices to the same individual. So how does this technology work, and how might your business benefit from its use?

The Basics of Cross-Device Tracking

Cross-device tracking deduces a user's identity using either deterministic identification, which establishes a relationship between a user and device based on information provided by that individual, such as an email address used to access their online account, for example. Or probabilistic identification, which gathers anonymous information such as a device's operating system, browser settings and location to establish a device's digital fingerprint. Consequently, deterministic identification establishes a strong link between a device and user, whereas probabilistic identification provides an informed guess to connect one or more devices to a single user.

How Businesses and Consumers Benefit

Once an organization establishes a connection between a user and every device they use to access a site, significant improvements to the user's experience follow. For example, having connected a user to multiple devices, businesses develop a complete view of that individual's activity on their site. With cross-device tracking, businesses now have a way to personalize a user's experience by presenting the types of goods and products of the greatest interest, for example. It also allows organizations to deliver targeted advertising to a user's device once they leave the organization's site and continue browsing the internet, sometimes referred to as "retargeting."

In addition to enhancing revenue, having established a connection between a user and previously anonymous devices, the risk of fraud typically declines. Therefore, instead of asking the user to follow the standard login process, a business may decide to remove some of those steps, and therefore, further improve the customer's experience.

Hacking and Privacy Concerns

While cross-device tracking isn't a new form of technology, many businesses remain unaware of its capabilities. Even fewer understand the privacy concerns and the potential for cybercriminals to use data gathered from an employee's device to breach their employer's IT defenses, as noted by the Society for Human Resource Management. However, there's a growing body of law and regulations relating to cross-device tracking.

The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which becomes law on May 25, 2018, and the ePrivacy Regulation, in particular, which is within the legislative process, both include guidance related to the use of technology akin to cross-device tracking. While the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the topic with general recommendations, absent clear regulatory guidance in the U.S., businesses must self-regulate their activities related to cross-device tracking. In that vein, along with the FTC guidance, businesses should review the Digital Advertising Alliance published guidance regarding cross-device tracking, which includes guidance on transparency and the degree of control provided to individual users regarding their participation.

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