Baltimore startup TrackOFF finds uptick in candidates tracking digital fingerprints - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Nov. 6, 2018 1:31 pm

Baltimore startup TrackOFF finds uptick in candidates tracking digital fingerprints

The Canton-based data privacy company conducted research finding 95 out of 100 midterm candidates were using device fingerprinting tools from Google, Facebook and other sources. CEO Chandler Givens talks about the potential implications.

TrackOFF dug into how members of Congress track data like advertisers.

While many candidates were measuring voter opinion in the run-up to today’s midterm elections, TrackOFF was conducting a survey exploring the behavior of the politicians themselves.

The Baltimore cybersecurity startup conducted research into whether candidates running in close races for Congress are using tools from Google, Facebook and other third parties that use a device’s “fingerprint” for personal identification and targeting. Unlike cookie-based tracking, device fingerprinting does not allow users to opt-out. The method can also track a user’s behavior on more than one device. And while Google and Facebook have gotten scrutiny, the other third-party tools being used mostly haven’t, Givens said.

The firm found 95 of the 100 campaign websites it sampled are using the tools for device fingerprinting. Of those, 84 percent are using Google Analytics, 42 percent are using Facebook and 11 percent are using technology from another third party.

To conduct the research, TrackOFF CEO Chandler Givens said the 26-employee startup based in Canton used a modified version of its software, which focuses on identifying and obscuring users from device fingerprinting.

The results of the research indicates points to the highest prevalence of this type of tracking to be used in an election, Givens said.

The use of the tracking technology is part of a wider ramp-up in campaign advertising via Facebook, according to a Wall Street Journal report. While election campaigns have long kept large databases of voter data, the ability to target voters using tools from Google and Facebook creates a more granular level of detail.

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The increased advertising also stands out given how members of Congress have been scrutinizing Facebook in over data privacy. TrackOFF conducted research in conjunction with the Journal that showed 44 out of 50 members of Congress who were on the committee that scrutinized Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have some form of tracker on their website.

And using data from a Facebook tool that tracks political advertising, the Journal found that about two-thirds of the 55 House committee members who participated in the hearing are spending Facebook dollars on campaign advertising.

“It’s politically expedient to say that you care a lot about data privacy, but you have to also recognize that the further you go, the more politicians rely on online tracking as the most effective way to reach people in a highly targeted matter,” Givens said.

To Givens, the ability to use more targeted advertising in politics isn’t just a matter of persuading voters to vote for a particular candidate. He theorized that the tools could also present a way to target specific messages that resonated in an area based on how well they performed on analytics, rather than the strength of the ideas.

“I don’t think choosing government based on who has the best analytics and tracking is a good form of democracy,” he said.

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