Consumers these days connect to the Internet using lots of devices -- a person might move almost seamlessly between a laptop or tablet at home to browsing on a smartphone during a commute. Companies are increasingly trying to capture that movement to build more comprehensive profiles of people.
And now the Federal Trade Commission says it will look into just what this so-called "cross-device tracking" means for consumers.
The FTC will put on a workshop on the topic this fall, Chairwoman Edith Ramirez announced during a summit held by the International Association of Privacy Professionals on Thursday. The details of the workshop aren't yet clear, but such events are often the first step to the agency releasing reports and ramping up enforcement on practices that may negatively affect consumers.
"We want to make sure to highlight for consumers practices that have significant privacy implications," Ramirez said.
The Federal Trade Commission is the de facto federal privacy watchdog. Ramirez has made protecting consumers online and on mobile devices a priority during her tenure. Last year, the agency held a workshop on mobile tracking and released a report on the how data brokers collect information on Americans' digital habits.
Cross-device tracking can be done by asking users to sign in while using multiple platforms -- think signing into Facebook or Google on your computer as well as your smartphone. But there are other ways, such as observing shared behaviors between the devices -- for example, if two devices show a pattern of connecting to the same IP addresses or from the same locations, or even sharing similar browsing habits like frequenting certain Web sites.
The result is that companies can create more detailed profiles than what can be gathered about someone by simply observing their habits on just one device -- especially given the capacity to track locations inherent in the ways mobile devices are often used.
But another major benefit of this for online advertising companies is being able to see if an ad on one device results in a purchase made on another. This is attractive because the payouts are bigger for demonstrating an ad resulted in a sale than just displaying it to a user.