Mobile Ads Can Infer Users' Medication, Dating Preferences, Researcher Tells FTC

Mobile ads can now infer the medications that users take, whether they prefer to date men or women, and their location. That's according to Cornell Tech's Vitaly Shmatikov, who will present research to the Federal Trade Commission next month.

"These privacy violations are caused primarily by subtle bugs and inconsistencies in mobile advertising software," Shmatikof writes in a summary of the research, which hasn't yet been published.

He says that even when companies attempt to protect users' privacy, "advertisers can still extract sensitive information about the user without the user’s knowledge or consent."

Shmatikof's paper is one of 19 research presentations that will be featured at the FTC's PrivacyCon, to be held on Jan. 14. The FTC hopes to address a host of issues at the conference, including "how consumers’ understanding of privacy online squares with the options about their privacy that they are provided, tools to analyze the way consumers’ information is shared and used online, and the effectiveness of programs to track security vulnerabilities," the agency says.



Another paper slated for discussion, the Web Privacy Census by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, addresses the continued growth of tracking cookies. A summary of that report provided to the FTC says that people who visited the home pages of the top 100 Web sites in October would have also collected more than 6,000 cookies -- up from 3,152 from 2012.

The agenda also includes a privacy study by Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, who found that most people aren't comfortable with data mining by marketers.

Almost all (91%) of the 1,500 people surveyed for that study said companies shouldn't collect data about shoppers in exchange for discounts without telling them. Around 70% said it wasn't fair for stores with free WiFi to monitor shoppers' online activities, and 55% said they disagreed with the idea that a store should be able to “create a picture” of them in order to improve services.

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