Friday, March 4, 2011

Replacing Cookies with Device Fingerprints

New products from companies like BlueCava and Ringleader Digital will allow advertisers to link and track individual consumers on their mobile phones, desktop PCs, tablet devices, games consoles, TVs - even their cars - and serve them ads based on activity across those devices.

They will do so using a process often referred to as device fingerprinting, an emerging device identification technique which could eventually replace the cornerstone of online measurement and data collection, the cookie.

When a connected device accesses content or services, it transmits bits of information about its properties and settings. For example, a smartphone might communicate details of which operating system and browser versions it's running, its time zone, and which carrier network it’s using, to name but a few.

These individual signals can be collected and pieced together to form a unique, persistent "fingerprint" for that specific device. That fingerprint can then be assigned an identifying number, and used for similar purposes as a cookie, such as ad targeting, frequency capping, and other forms of tracking.

In the following video, the CEO of BlueCava explains this new technology.

Replacing the Cookie

The technology applies not only to mobile devices, however, but also to desktop computers, tablet devices, and potentially any device with a data connection.

"Our ultimate goal is to replace the cookie," David Norris, BlueCava's chairman and CEO, told ClickZ. "Cookies are temporary tattoos that fade away, but [fingerprints] don't fade away. Cookies had their point in time, but we've moved far enough along for a more sophisticated system now."

Because cookies reside on users' machines they are subject to deletion and expiration, and are rendered useless if a user decides to switch to a new browser, for example.

Fingerprints, however, track devices themselves, rather than the cookies placed on them. Even if the characteristics of a device change, its fingerprint is simply updated to reflect those changes. If, for example, a user upgrades his browser, the device can still be uniquely identified using other characteristics, and its fingerprint is simply altered to reflect the changes.

To illustrate the process Norris used an analogy of a person walking into a small grocery store two days in a row. The second time the person visits the store he might have changed his shirt, but the storeowner will still recognize him based on other characteristics such as height, hair color, and numerous other variables. In theory, just as no two shoppers are the same, neither are two devices.

Based on this principle, Norris said BlueCava's technology can uniquely identify a device 99.9 percent of the time using around 50 pieces of data broadcast from a desktop browser.

Mobile Devices, Tracking and Targeting

Besides desktop computers, fingerprinting technology has arguably more potential for mobile and tablet devices, which typically can't be tracked easily using cookies.

In light of that opportunity, Ringleader Digital has developed a similar technology to BlueCava, but is focusing its efforts squarely on the mobile ad market. Dubbing its Media Stamp product "the mobile equivalent of the desktop cookie," it can be used for similar purposes such as frequency capping, conversion tracking, and potentially behavioral and data-driven media buying opportunities also.

"We can uniquely and persistently identify the top 100 U.S. devices 100 percent of the time," Bob Walczak, CEO of Ringleader Digital, told ClickZ. "The issue in mobile has been that third party cookies work on less than 60 percent of devices, based on our testing. This is because the carriers strip them off at the gateway, the devices can't accept them, or they are shipped with third-party cookies turned off. There are so many different, fragmented market standards, so our aim was to create a single, simple solution," he said.

Ringleader has positioned itself as a technology provider, licensing its wares to publishers, ad networks, ad servers, and essentially any party with a use for them. Meanwhile stealth startup TapAd is in the process of developing a similar solution, but plans to focus more heavily on the direct provision of real-time bidded, data-driven opportunities for advertisers.

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