Monetising user information without the privacy outrage

via Flickr © Moyan_Brenn (CC BY-ND 2.0)

via Flickr © Moyan_Brenn (CC BY-ND 2.0)

As we reported last week, Yahoo has splashed some cash (reportedly a couple of hundred million dollars), on an outfit called Flurry. Seeing Yahoo is in dire straits growth-wise  (as usual) and US$200 to $300, while not at WhatsApp levels, is nevertheless a weighty bundle to drop on the table, there must be a potential life-saver in this transaction. A throw of the dice, perhaps?

Flurry is a sort of inference engine which makes its home (quite legitimately, at least at the present time) in mobile apps and - in the awful jargon which seems a speciality in this area - helps developers monetise their applications.  Translation: it plants ads in the applications and in other ways gets the user to part with money (that’s what monetise usually means). 

Last generation information gatherers set out to achieve the intelligence necessary to ‘monetise’ by using clumsy and gauche ‘explicit’ techniques: like planting key stroke loggers on phones, for instance, or using deep packet inspection somewhere in the network. These were the old-fashioned lumbering sort of spies, analogous to the KGB bugging hotel rooms and blackmailing ambassadors with surprise photographers. Those were the days. 

Naming and shaming, the threat of regulation and privacy law seems has got rid of the digital KGB-like pioneers, but now the smart money is coming back to have another go by using ‘legitimate’ feedback information and then cleverly drawing inferences from it.  As in yesterday’s story about “Canvas Fingerprinting”, if you have two or three relevant data points to play with you can achieve wonders in terms of your understanding of what users are up to. 

That’s what Flurry sets out to do. It essentially gathers in little pin-pricks of data from ‘different’ apps on a single phone: those which use location, those which are opened and closed to buy things and so on; then, just by combing through that usage it can ‘infer’, it’s claimed, important profile information so that without even knowing names, it can select relevant ads and use inferences around context to shove them at the anonymous mobile users at the right time. 

For Yahoo, then, struggling generally, but especially struggling to get itself into mobile, it could be a lifesaver.  Yahoo has to get a foothold in mobile and the best place at the moment to head the competitors off at the pass is in apps which have not yet been fully cracked by the big boys (Google, Facebook… etc). Something like 86 per cent of the spend on gadgets is now spent in apps and this is where the growth money is going to be. At present Yahoo gobbles a tiny share of this market: 2.52 per cent and still falling. Flurry might be part of the answer. 

So it’s clever.  Like canvas fingerprinting. And nobody is hurt in the making of this monetisation opportunity…. or are they?

I’m not sure myself. Perhaps it’s just me but I simply don’t want to be streamed without my knowledge into a commercial slow-lane (or fast lane for that matter). To my mind it’s not the data collection that matters, it what you do with it that counts, and I don’t want my info (however anonymised it might be) to be used against me. For whether they admit or not, at the end of the day that’s what monetisation is all about. 

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