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What Your Phone is Telling Wall Street

Your phone knows where you shop, where you work and where you sleep. Hedge funds are very interested in such data, so they are buying it.

When Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said the car maker would work around the clock to boost production of its Model 3 sedan, the number crunchers at Thasos Group decided to watch. They circled Tesla’s 370 acres in Fremont, Calif., on an online map, creating a digital corral to isolate smartphone location signals that emanated from within it. Thasos, which leases databases of trillions of geographic coordinates collected by smartphone apps, set its computers to find the pings created at Tesla’s factory, then shared the data with its hedge-fund clients [Editor’s note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source], showing the overnight shift swelled 30% from June to October.

Last month, many on Wall Street were surprised when Tesla disclosed a rare quarterly profit, the result of Model 3 production that had nearly doubled in three months. Shares shot up 9.1% the next day. Thasos is at the vanguard of companies trying to help traders get ahead of stock moves like that using so-called alternative data. Such suppliers might examine mine slag heaps from outer space, analyze credit-card spending data or sort through construction permits. Thasos’s specialty is spewing out of your smartphone.

Thasos gets data from about 1,000 apps, many of which need to know a phone’s location to be effective, like those providing weather forecasts, driving directions or the whereabouts of the nearest ATM. Smartphone users, wittingly or not, share their location when they use such apps. Before Thasos gets the data, suppliers scrub it of personally identifiable information, Mr. Skibiski said. It is just time-stamped strings of longitude and latitude. But with more than 100 million phones providing such coordinates, Thasos says it can paint detailed pictures of the ebb and flow of people, and thus their money.

Mobile Websites Can Tap Into Your Phone’s Sensors Without Asking

When apps wants to access data from your smartphone’s motion or light sensors, they often make that capability clear. That keeps a fitness app, say, from counting your steps without your knowledge. But a team of researchers has discovered that the rules don’t apply to websites loaded in mobile browsers, which can often often access an array of device sensors without any notifications or permissions whatsoever.

That mobile browsers offer developers access to sensors isn’t necessarily problematic on its own. It’s what helps those services automatically adjust their layout, for example, when you switch your phone’s orientation. And the World Wide Web Consortium standards body has codified how web applications can access sensor data. But the researchers—Anupam Das of North Carolina State University, Gunes Acar of Princeton University, Nikita Borisov of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Amogh Pradeep of Northeastern University—found that the standards allow for unfettered access to certain sensors. And sites are using it.

The researchers found that of the top 100,000 sites—as ranked by Amazon-owned analytics company Alexa—3,695 incorporate scripts that tap into one or more of these accessible mobile sensors. That includes plenty of big names, including Wayfair, Priceline.com, and Kayak.

“If you use Google Maps in a mobile browser you’ll get a little popup that says, ‘This website wants to see your location,’ and you can authorize that,” says Borisov. “But with motion, lighting, and proximity sensors there isn’t any mechanism to notify the user and ask for permission, so they’re being accessed and that is invisible to the user. For this collection of sensors there isn’t a permissions infrastructure.”

That unapproved access to motion, orientation, proximity, or light sensor data alone probably wouldn’t compromise a user’s identity or device. And a web page can only access sensors as long as a user is actively browsing the page, not in the background. But the researchers note that on a malicious website, the information could fuel various types of attacks, like using ambient light data to make inferences about a user’s browsing, or using motion sensor data as a sort of keylogger to deduce things like PIN numbers.

In past work, researchers have also shown that they can use the unique calibration features of motion sensors on individual devices to identify and track them across websites. And while the World Wide Web Consortium standards classify data from these sensors as “not sensitive enough to warrant specific sensor permission grants,” the group does acknowledge that there are some potential privacy concerns. “Implementations may consider permissions or visual indicators to signify the use of sensors by the page,” the standard suggests.

The prevalence of ad networks also makes it difficult to get a handle on the issue. The researchers even found three scripts attempting to access user sensors in ad modules on WIRED.com, though at least one had been removed when the researchers rechecked the site for this story. Other media sites, including CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and CNET have ad networks using similar scripts as well.

Can An Individual Still Resist The Spread of Technology?

When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one. To do without a cellphone — and soon, if not already, a smartphone — means estranging oneself from normal society. We went from “you can have a portable communication device” to “you must have a portable communication device” practically overnight… Today most people are expected to be instantly reachable at all times. These devices have gone from servants to masters…

Few of us would be willing to give up modern shelter, food, clothing, medicine, entertainment or transportation. Most of us would say the trade-offs are more than worth it. But they happen whether they are worth it or not, and the individual has little power to resist. Technological innovation is a one-way street. Once you enter it, you are obligated to proceed, even if it leads someplace you would not have chosen to go.

The column argues “the iPhone X proves the Unabomber was right,” citing this passage from the 1996 manifesto of the anti-technology terrorist. “Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it.”

Targeted advertising hits emergency rooms

Patients sitting in emergency rooms, at chiropractors’ offices and at pain clinics in the Philadelphia area may start noticing on their phones the kind of messages typically seen along highway billboards and public transit: personal injury law firms looking for business by casting mobile online ads at patients.

The potentially creepy part? They’re only getting fed the ad because somebody knows they are in an emergency room.

The technology behind the ads, known as geofencing, or placing a digital perimeter around a specific location, has been deployed by retailers for years to offer coupons and special offers to customers as they shop. Bringing it into health care spaces, however, is raising alarm among privacy experts.

That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You’re Watching on TV

At first glance, the gaming apps — with names like “Pool 3D,” “Beer Pong: Trickshot” and “Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin” — seem innocuous. One called “Honey Quest” features Jumbo, an animated bear.

Yet these apps, once downloaded onto a smartphone, have the ability to keep tabs on the viewing habits of their users — some of whom may be children — even when the games aren’t being played.

It is yet another example of how companies, using devices that many people feel they can’t do without, are documenting how audiences in a rapidly changing entertainment landscape are viewing television and commercials.

The apps use software from Alphonso, a start-up that collects TV-viewing data for advertisers. Using a smartphone’s microphone, Alphonso’s software can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see. The information can then be used to target ads more precisely and to try to analyze things like which ads prompted a person to go to a car dealership.

More than 250 games that use Alphonso software are available in the Google Play store; some are also available in Apple’s app store.

Some of the tracking is taking place through gaming apps that do not otherwise involve a smartphone’s microphone, including some apps that are geared toward children. The software can also detect sounds even when a phone is in a pocket if the apps are running in the background.